Balanced approach to the life of ‘Big Jim’

Peter Berresford Ellis reviews James Larkin by Emmet O’Connor, Cork University Press, Radical Irish Lives series, £13 (16.50 euros) pbk

THIS IS another in the excellent series of compact political biographies of those who have contributed significantly to the movements for Irish labour rights, gender equality and radical social and political change.

Jim Larkin (1874-1947) holds a central position in those who helped form the modern Irish labour movement.

It is interesting that this book acknowledges that the most detailed study of Larkin’s early years is to be found in C Desmond Greaves article on the subject in the Irish Democrat of September, 1980.

The book points out that in general labour historians have been kind to Larkin. Emmet O’Connor, who is senior lecturer in history at Magee College, University of Ulster, points out that his style of leadership was often dictatorial, his manner abrasive and has often been portrayed as a form of improvisation engendered by contemporary exigencies.

He poses the question whether Jim Larkin should be viewed as a ‘hero’ or as a ‘wrecker’ whose personality was detrimental to the cause of Irish trade unionism and the emerging Irish communist movement.

Certainly, most people consider his role heroic when he led the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in the epic 1913 Dublin lock out. But then his quarrel with his sister Delia, causing her to remove the Women Workers’ Union from Liberty Hall, and Larkin’s apparent antipathy to Connolly in 1914 have caused his attitudes to be debated.

Certainly Connolly had emerged as the ITGWU’s most able man after 1913. But Larkin deliberate chose P T Daly as his successor when he announced his imminent departure for the USA.

Also there was the cloud hanging over him that he had misspent insurance money and many thought that this was the reason why he left for America. O’Connor believes that it was simply that Larkin’s wished to move on.

He returned to Ireland in 1914 and was eventually to become leader of the Workers Union of Ireland, have a thorny relationship with the Soviet Union and an even thornier career as Dublin city councillor and Dáil deputy.

All in all, this is an essential little book for those interested in the history of the working class movement of Ireland.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-07-18 10:09:11.
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