Who got Larkin out?

In Issue 52 (June 2013) Noel McDermott examined how solidarity won an important victory in the Dublin lockout a century earlier.

A hundred years on, the most iconic image of the Dublin lockout remains Joseph Cashman’s photograph of Bloody Sunday. Before the internet had been dreamed of or television was more than an idea, this picture went around the world and showed the brutality of the state forces employed in support of Dublin’s capitalists as they attempted to crush fighting trade unionism. However often seen, it always repays another look, which will bring home a fresh image that hadn’t registered before: another baton raised in search of a skull, another person fleeing from the palpable danger. Although reproduced again and again, it avoids becoming a cliché purely because it gives such a true illustration of what was happening.

And what was happening on 31 August 1913 was that a meeting in support of the locked-out workers was due to take place on O’Connell Street, only to be banned by Ernest Swifte, a magistrate who earnestly and swiftly evicted and imprisoned many a striker in 1913 (and who just happened to be a shareholder in William Martin Murphy’s tramway company). Having publicly burned the banning order two days before, Jim Larkin put on a false beard and a big coat —a disguise which somehow managed to beat the finest minds of the Dublin Metropolitan Police—and made his way to a balcony of his arch-enemy’s Imperial Hotel. When he began to speak in defiance of the ban, he was arrested. The police, primed with alcohol and class hatred, cut loose on the crowd in O’Connell Street and its environs, many of them no more than curious onlookers on a Sunday afternoon stroll.

Larkin was remanded in custody, but after twelve days inside was allowed out on bail. His trial was fixed for 27 October, where he was sentenced to seven months in prison. The sentence caused wide­spread outrage: the state was putting him away for seven months for using seditious language, while Edward Carson was running a union­ist army in the north pledged to resist the will of the government, receiving no punishment and much encouragement from the British establishment. The blatant injustice of it underlined who exactly had right on their side in the Dublin labour war. “Release Larkin” naturally became part of the escalating struggle and of the movement in solidarity with it.

By the morning of 13 November, however, Larkin was free. This was clearly a big deal. The hope was that, with the charismatic leader of the ITGWU out of harm’s way for a stretch, the balance of forces might tilt in the employers’ direction and more ‘moderate’ counsels prevail on the workers’ side. Instead the gates of Mountjoy flew open after just seventeen days.

This release is usually attributed to the results of three parlia­mentary by-elections the week before. The Dublin strikers called on people in Linlithgowshire, Reading and Keighley to vote against the Liberal government’s candidates as a protest against Larkin’s im­prisonment. James Connolly spoke loudly in support of the idea, ITGWU organiser William Partridge went over to help out the Labour candidate in Reading, and fireworks were set off from the roof of Liberty Hall to celebrate Liberal reverses in the elections. Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George cited Larkin’s imprison­ment as the main factor behind the results.

So Larkin was released because by-election results went against the government, leaving it no choice but to yield to the electoral pressure and set Larkin free. It is a common interpretation featuring in many works—good as well as bad—on Larkin, Connolly, and the lockout:

Ministers stood firm while they were being told in peremptory language by their press organs that “Larkin must be released”… But directly the Larkinite influence appeared to their dis­comfiture, apparent or real, at by-elections, their stoic resolution broke down.1

working British voters had turned not merely restive but wrathful, and a couple of electoral knocks for the government led to the hasty opening of the prison doors on the 13th of November.2

Irish workers cheered the two Governmental election defeats which quashed Larkin’s seven months’ sentence.3

…the effective plan of campaign that was to bring about Larkin’s eventual release… that everyone work and vote against the Liberal Government until Larkin was free.… In referring to the by-election reverses at the National Liberal Club in London, Lloyd George admitted that “there are explanations, the most prom­inent of which is, probably, Jim Larkin.”4

Following government defeats in the three by-elections, Lloyd George said: “There are explanations, the most prominent of which is, probably, Jim Larkin.” On 13 November he was released.5

The government lost seats in by-elections, and this resulted in their deciding unanimously that the sentence was “grossly excessive” and should be reduced. Lloyd George had already stated that the “most prominent explanation” for the Liberals’ setback was probably Larkin.6

Following poor by-election results, government intervention secured his release on 13 November.7

Nevertheless, the claim doesn’t stand up too well if we take the unprecedented step of actually looking at those by-election results them­selves. Failure to do so has fed the argument that those results freed Larkin. Even historians who haven’t gone along with it, or even argued against it, have got their facts wrong:

organised Labour worked hard to effect the Government defeat in two by-elections.8

The news of the government defeats in Linlithgow and Reading caused great jubilation in Dublin.… On November 12 the Liberals were defeated at Keighley also.9

When on 10 November the news came that the Liberals had been defeated at both Reading and Linlithgow, rockets were fired from the roof of Liberty Hall. The third contest was at Keighley, where there was a spectacular increase in the Labour vote.10

The Liberals suffered ignominious defeats in the bye-elections.11

Liberal candidates were defeated in two by-elections in England and Scotland on 10 November, and Labour’s vote increased substantially in Keighley, Yorkshire.12

But what actually happened in the by-elections?

Linlithgowshire in Scotland (now West Lothian) went to the polls on 7 November 1913. In the last general election in 1910 the Liberal Alexander Ure held the seat (as he had since 1895) with 5,835 votes to the Conservative James Kidd’s 3,765. Following Ure’s appoint­ment to the judiciary, his successor won the by-election with 5,615 votes to Kidd’s 5,094.13 So the opposition increased its vote well, but didn’t eat into the government vote much, and the Liberals held the seat.

Reading voted the next day. Again a judicial appointment led to the Liberal incumbent vacating the seat, which he had only held at the general election by 5,094 votes to 4,995. The same Tory, Leslie Orme Wilson, stood in the by-election, with the Liberals parachuting in a new candidate. Wilson got his vote up to 5,144, while the new Liberal managed 4,013. A first-time candidate from the British Socialist Party won 1,063 votes.14 So the government lost a marginal seat which had been hanging by a 1 per cent thread. It couldn’t be claimed that the BSP had split the anti-Tory vote: even their vote added to the Liberals wouldn’t have beaten Wilson.

The by-election in Keighley, Yorkshire, took place on 11 Nov­ember. Its Liberal MP, who gloried in the name of Stanley Owen Buckmaster, had won the seat in a by-election himself two years earlier, winning 4,667 votes to the Conservatives’ 3,842 and Labour’s 3,452. He now had to put himself forward again after being appointed Solicitor-General. In 1913 he got 4,730, while the Conservative got 3,852 and Labour got 3,646.15 So everyone’s vote increased slightly, making little difference to the relative proportions, the government share being down about one third of 1 per cent.

So, despite what many books tell us, the Liberals didn’t lose most or all of the by-elections, nor was there any spectacular increase in the opposition vote. Overall, the government held two of the seats—one with a much reduced vote share,16 another with a drop that wouldn’t register on the swingometer—and lost a very marginal seat. It is a set of mid-term by-election results that any government would be very happy with. The last of the three contests, the one which is supposed to have dealt the final blow that won Larkin’s freedom, went extreme­ly well for the government. Their majority in parliament, with the support of the Home Rulers, remained. These were nothing like the sort of catastrophic reverses they are assumed to have been, nor the kind of results to force a government into releasing a political prisoner.

This is not to say that the attempt to use the by-elections to the Dublin workers’ advantage was a mistake. Every opportunity to press their case had to be grasped, and these elections provided a chance to push it further up the British political agenda. All three constituencies would have contained a big enough Irish population, whose natural sympathies were there to be won.17 And spinning the Reading result into a major victory was harmless enough when Dublin workers needed every morale boost they could get.

The link between the results and Larkin’s incarceration originated with Lloyd George, as we have seen. If ever there was a politician whose statements needed questioning sceptically, it is him, whose legendary craftiness would tie the Irish delegation in knots at the 1921 treaty negotiations. His comments following the Reading defeat had more to do with internal Liberal Party politics. Undermining Augustine Birrell, the minister responsible for ruling Ireland, did no harm to his own ambitions. It is strange, however, that his partisan election analysis has found so much favour with historians of Irish labour.

What did win Larkin’s release, then? Answering that question requires a shift away from the historical consensus which has down­played if not dismissed an important factor in the Dublin lockout: solidarity action by workers in Britain. The spread of sympathy among British public opinion in general is well documented, as is the money and food sent by British unions, but industrial action in support remains an under-researched topic. What we know from standard histories is impressive, though: railworkers in various parts of Britain refused to transport goods for firms in Dublin involved in the lockout, and when they were victimised by their employers, thousands of their colleagues walked out. They weren’t just backing Dublin as an end in itself, but also hoping to settle grievances with their own bosses, and defending their right to boycott scab cargo as a basic union principle.

While Larkin was in jail, the employers escalated their fight, shipping in scabs from England. Connolly responded in kind, calling out every trade unionist in the docks and shutting them down altogether. He has been roundly criticised ever since for a move which brought into the dispute shipping firms which had taken no part in it but were sticking to their contract with the ITGWU. However, alien­ating a strand of ‘public opinion’ was better than platonically bemoan­ing the influx of scab labour. Putting the port of Dublin out of action showed that the union could also take extraordinary measures in extraordinary circumstances, could “carry the war into every section of the enemy’s camp”, as Connolly put it.18

The move also involved a direct appeal to the rank and file of British labour. In a ‘Manifesto to the British Working Class’ on 12 November Connolly called for all traffic from companies locking out workers to be stopped. In Holyhead and Liverpool, from Newcastle to Derby, the call was heeded, with workers setting up ‘vigilance committees’ to oversee their boycott and protect against victimisation. The solidarity of workers in Britain with strikers in Dublin was reaching a new height, and organising independently. This, together with the closure of Dublin port, was enough to tilt the balance. Larkin being in prison made it difficult for the government and bosses to head off the new threat. The British cabinet had decided that day that he should be released early, but left it up to Birrell to decide exactly when. Although he had opposed that decision, he set Larkin free the next day. “Not Liberal justice but solidarity—class solidarity is the reason why I am free”, he insisted.19

Himself and Connolly immediately appealed for British workers “to go ahead and strike while the iron of revolt is hot in our souls”,20 and followed up with a series of meetings over the water. It was clear now that only action in Britain could cut the Dublin employers off from their profits and bring them to heel. The fact that such action didn’t materialise was at the bottom of the defeat the workers finally suffered.

It is commonly held that Larkin blew any chance of it by his reck­less attacks on British union leaders. He did indeed fly off the handle at times, but what he said was no worse than the insults they hurled at him. If Larkin’s words really hurt them more than the sight of sticks and stones breaking the bones of workers in Dublin, they deserved every epithet. His denunciation of rail union leader J H Thomas as “a double-dyed traitor to his class”21 sounds harsh until you consider that Thomas actually helped employers to sack railworkers who refused to handle Dublin goods. (When you look at his subsequent career—joining Ramsay Macdonald’s national government in the 1930s, and then caught selling budget secrets to stockbrokers—it proves to be a prophetic statement of cold fact.)

It is too often forgotten that Britain’s union movement in 1913 was experiencing an acute expression of the ever-present divide between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. Dublin brought it to a head: ordinary trade unionists acted on the instinct to engage in solidarity action off their own bat, while their officials acted on the instinct to dampen down such action and reassert their own position as intermediaries between capital and labour.

The impressive scale of official support from Britain’s TUC—the equivalent of €10 million today, as well as calling the first special conference in its history to discuss the dispute—was a response to pressure from below. The first TUC donation came as 2,000 Liver­pool dockers and railworkers were out, and a continuing blacking of Dublin goods there and in South Wales was the backdrop to the conference being called. Attacks on Larkin were only one flank of the union leaders’ strategy: the other was to offer generous assistance as an alternative to effective solidarity action.

In these circumstances, fighting for Dublin’s cause in Britain had to involve disconcerting the union leaders, in fact encouraging revolt against them. Larkin and Connolly were in contact with the British left for years, of course, and that network formed the backbone of the solidarity movement. The decision to campaign in the Reading by-election incidentally helped the British Socialist Party, a radical organ­isation very critical of official labour, to a very decent poll. No paper had championed the Dublin strikers more than the Daily Herald, the paper of the British left, whose editor told them that their victory would not only put a stop to Murphy but “will have stimulated… the great working class warfare in Great Britain”.22 While on bail Larkin had told an audience in London to “tell their leaders to get in front or get out”, and following his release he issued a manifesto calling on British trade unionists to force their leaders to support trade union struggle instead of being “apologists for the shortcomings of the Capitalist system”.23 Appealing over the heads of the leadership like this had won solidarity thus far, and intensifying the appeal to the rank and file was the only way to intensify the solidarity.

If anything, the ITGWU could be accused of not going far enough in distinguishing leaders from rank and file. From early in the lockout Ben Tillett, head of the National Transport Workers’ Federation in Britain, spoke loudly and radically in support of the Dublin workers. This left-wing union leader shared platforms with Larkin and Connolly and got a good few column inches in The Irish Worker. But when push came to shoving a knife in their back, it was Tillett who turned to lead the TUC’s condemnation of Larkin and abandonment of Dublin: the strikers’ Waterloo, as Connolly re­marked. Of course, plenty of others on the left were caught off guard by Tillett’s betrayal, the prelude to his vociferous support for the war a year later.

The left wing of British labour was not a little disorientated by these events, and unofficial solidarity with Dublin would face an uphill fight against what was now a solid front of union bureaucracy as well as the inevitable retaliation from employers. 30,000 rail­workers were out in South Wales for another week or so, but were forced back by national officials without winning reinstatement of two colleagues sacked for refusing to handle Dublin goods. It is hardly surprising that such support petered out, and once the pressure from below eased off, financial support from the official movement dried up too. The Dublin workers were now staring defeat in the face.

The story of how Larkin was imprisoned and released throws up issues that were central to the struggle in 1913. Electoral campaigning was only an adjunct to the real fight. Not liberal justice but class solidarity, across national borders, was the key to success. The rank and file had to organise its own activity independently of union leaders, left or right, to ensure success. Whenever the spirit of 1913 takes flight again in Dublin and the rest of Ireland, such lessons will be invaluable.


  1. Arnold Wright, Disturbed Dublin (London 1914) p 233. This book was, of course, the employers’ bought-and-paid-for account of the dispute.
  2. W P Ryan, The Irish Labour Movement (Dublin 1919), p 231.
  3. Desmond Ryan, James Connolly (Dublin/London 1924), p 70.
  4. Emmet Larkin, James Larkin: Irish Labour Leader (London 1965), p 141-2.
  5. Ruth Dudley Edwards, James Connolly (Dublin 1981), p 108.
  6. Dónal Nevin, James Larkin: Lion of the Fold (Dublin 1998), p 199.
  7. Emmet O’Connor, James Larkin (Cork 2002), p 46.
  8. R M Fox, Jim Larkin: The Rise of the Underman (London 1957), p 104.
  9. C Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London 1961), p 261.
  10. C Desmond Greaves, The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union: The Formative Years (Dublin 1982), p 109.
  11. Kieran Allen, The Politics of James Connolly (London 1990), p 117.
  12. Francis Devine, Organising History (Dublin 2009), p 60.
  13. Debrett’s House of Commons (London 1916), p 240.
  14. Ibid, p 258.
  15. Ibid, p 287.
  16. Pádraig Yeates, Lockout (Dublin 2000) is very careful with the facts and doesn’t accept the by-elections as a crucial factor in Larkin’s release, but even here it is claimed that the Liberals “only retained Linlithgow by the barest majority” (p 385). There are majorities far barer than 5 per cent.
  17. Campaigning in Keighley yielded a dividend in the form of a £20 donation to the lockout fund from the local trades council: The Irish Worker, December 13 1913.
  18. Quoted in Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly, p 263. It has since come to light that other shipping firms were on the point of joining the lockout anyway: see Yeates, p 400.
  19. ‘Justice, Moryah’, editorial, The Irish Worker, November 15 1913.
  20. Quoted in Larkin, p 144, footnote.
  21. Quoted in ibid, p 146.
  22. Charles Lapworth, ‘The Lesson of Dublin’, The Irish Worker, November 1 1913.
  23. Quoted in Larkin, p 138, 146.

Jim Larkin: A man on a mission

Noel McDermott contributed this review to Issue 20 (November 2004).

Joseph Deasy. Fiery Cross: The Story of Jim Larkin. (Irish Labour History Society)

The Labour History Society certainly moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. A relatively minor pamphlet from forty years ago, a secondary account rather than a primary narrative, seems a strange document to reprint. Why reproduce a potted biography of Larkin when a couple of full-scale biographies are readily available? Not for the first time, the workings of the ILHS engender much furrowing of the brow and scratching of the head.

Having said that, Joe Deasy’s pamphlet on Larkin is an interesting read. When it came out in 1963, there was no satisfactory biography of Larkin on the shelves. Although only a short pamphlet, the author did put the work in, researching the papers of Larkin’s time (not without difficulty, as the appendices to this edition testify) rather than relying on second-hand sources. What’s more, Deasy had a nice way of putting things: he describes Larkin’s funeral as the occasion when he “dislocated for the last time industrial life in Dublin city”! Working-class activists buying the pamphlet back then would have been well rewarded for their shilling and threepence.

Larkin’s basic attitude is aptly summed up as one of “complete working-class solidarity”, with no ifs, ands or buts. He didn’t unionise Dublin port by sitting down to negotiate no-strike sweetheart deals, but by preventing any ship from entering the port until its crew had full union conditions. He was “unselfishly and incorruptibly dedicated to the cause of the working class”.

Larkin never minced his words but served them up in big raw chunks, “calling ugly things by their names”, as Deasy says. He relates an anecdote from Larkin’s time in a US prison. One Patrick’s Day, the authorities thought it would be harmless enough to let him address his fellow inmates on the saint’s mission. But when he claimed that the snakes driven from Ireland “came to America to become politicians, policemen and prison guards”, there ended the lesson. (Not that Ireland’s own boys in blue came off much better. A poem quoted from Larkin’s Irish Worker describes a policeman as “six feet of colossal ignorance”, a line that seems just as appropriate for today’s Templemore alumni.)

Larkin’s message involved far more than bating his enemies, though. During a strike he pointed out the utter uselessness of these parasites:

Why do not the capitalist class carry on the distribution of goods? They are not on strike. Why are the ships lying idle, trams at a standstill, factories closed and commodities rotting? You can take your kings, lords and capitalists, tie them in a bunch, send them out to the Bailey lighthouse and dump them. The world would move on all serene… Labour, producing all wealth, should own and control all wealth.

In the first issue of The Irish Worker Larkin said the paper would be “a well of truth reflecting the purity of your motives”. There was an almost spiritual dimension to what he himself called his mission to make people discontented. Again and again, he tried to get working people to realise their own dignity and worth as human beings. They were entitled to a full and free life in the society that rested on their shoulders.

The introduction to this edition opines that Deasy’s claim that Larkin was a Marxist is the most controversial section of the pamphlet. But the claim seems fair enough: “While some of his conceptions were not strictly in accordance with Marxist tenets his general political position was certainly Marxist.” Of course, all kinds of everything can be found in Larkin: syndicalism, nationalism, Christianity and more besides, the traces of varied influences on his thought. But for the most part, Larkin at his best took a stand that approximates to what a Marxist would do. His syndicalism didn’t stop him from fighting on issues outside the traditional realm of trade unionism. His nationalism didn’t stop him reacting against the sub­ordination of working-class claims to the middle class’s idea of a fight for national independence. His Christianity didn’t stop him giving the priests hell when he wanted to. His Marxism was an instinctual gut Marxism, of the heart more than the head, but that’s not the worst thing a person can be accused of.

The worst part of Deasy’s account is instead his depiction of Sinn Féin. The enmity towards Larkin in 1913, he writes, “extended to some elements in the Sinn Féin movement… right-wing elements of Sinn Féin, typified by Griffith and MacNeill”, whereas other republicans were on his side. But the republicans in question—Pearse, Clarke, McDermott—were never in Sinn Féin, which at that time wasn’t republican at all. Arthur Griffith’s hostility to Larkin was perfectly in keeping with Sinn Féin’s intention that Ireland take her place amongst the capitalist economies of the earth. Deasy’s excuses are in keeping with the attempt of too many Irish socialists over the years to extract some kind of progressive potential from nationalist advocates of capitalism.

American socialist Eugene Debs is quoted here calling Larkin “the incarnation of the revolution”. There is an awful lot of truth in that—which is not a good thing. At the end of the day, it was a symptom of the weakness of the young Irish working class that they needed to embody their fighting spirit in one man. Successful revolutionary movements of the working class throw up modest leaders, and then only for a short time.

Worst of all, Larkin sometimes believed the hype himself. Identifying himself with the workers’ cause sometimes went too far, to the point of identifying the workers’ cause with himself. Deasy doesn’t shy away from the consequences, and his comments only confirm the testimony of Connolly and other contemporaries:

even his warmest admirers had often occasion to refer to him as “an impossible man.” He was a law unto himself and was incapable of submitting to the discipline necessary in any organisation. …he was extremely individualistic, unpredictable and unamenable to the discip­line of any organisation, political or industrial.

This side of Larkin is nothing to be proud of.

Emmet O’Connor’s fine biography recently pulled no punches on this issue, even going so far as to blame Larkin’s recklessness for the split in the ITGWU following his return from the US in 1923. Deasy’s reading makes more sense, however. He is very critical of Larkin’s tactics in the dispute: “very badly conceived… ill-chosen… Instead of trying to change policies by working democratically within the Union, he made a frontal assault.” But he does recognise the very real question at the bottom of it all, albeit “an undeclared one… Larkin still stood for militancy, the executive for moderation at almost all costs.” The fierce workplace struggles of those years, and the ITGWU’s failure to back them, were more than a foundation for the new union Larkin helped set up: thousands of workers don’t change union just to flatter the vanity of one individual.

Larkin on one side and those opponents on the other drew the battle lines that divided the Irish labour movement for decades. Though the organisational wounds are well healed, the political chasm still gapes wide. Deasy tells us that the assets of the ITGWU “consisted of a couple of chairs, a table, two empty bottles and a candle” when it was established, but it was far richer in solidarity than the bureaucracy it was to become. In 1913 Larkin was imprisoned, and later evicted for being unable to afford his rent: can you imagine one of today’s Liberty Hall mandarins gracing the inside of Stubb’s Gazette, never mind a prison cell? If Deasy could write forty years ago that Larkin’s militancy “may now be irksome to some of the sophisticated in the contemporary Labour movement”, what could we say now, when they have ensured that almost the only time you see a strike on RTÉ is in the archive footage of Reeling In The Years?

Deasy pays tribute to the great power of Larkin’s writings and speeches, and this is born out by those he quotes in the pamphlet. So how come no one has ever thought to publish a selection of them? There’s a worthwhile job for the Labour History Society, or for someone who is willing to put the work in and given to thankless tasks. In Ireland we prefer to erect statues to our fighters and thinkers rather than publish and read their work.