Big Jim Larkin will have his day
An invitation came to attend a commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the death of Big Jim Larkin in Glasnevin Cemetery on 30th January, except the event is online. It is hard to imagine Jim Larkin would not have gone and stood in the open air and declared his beliefs in a forthright way.
On the day that Jim Larkin died in 1947, Sean O’Casey wrote,
“It is hard to believe that this great man is dead, for all thoughts and all activities surged in the soul of this labour leader. He was far and away above the orthodox labour leader, for he combined within himself the imagination of the artist, with the fire and determination of a leader of a downtrodden class.”
Jim Larkin was a labour leader at the time of the 1913 Dublin lock-out, the largest industrial dispute in Irish history involving 20,000 desperately poor workers who desired the right to form trade unions. It is one of those moments that has been neglected in the accounts of Irish history of the time.
In Ireland, Unionist and Nationalist politicians in 1913 wanted no distractions from the question of whether or not Ireland would become independent. In Britain, politicians were preoccupied with the growing tensions in Europe. The plight of Dublin workers did not feature in the major debates.
Poverty in Dublin was extreme, tens of thousands living in appalling tenement accommodation, infant mortality running at 142 per 1,000 births (i.e. one baby in seven died), tuberculosis being rife in the poor districts; what is surprising is that the unrest was not greater. While the workers’ hopes for better pay and conditions were to be unfulfilled, the principle of being allowed to organize was at least established.
It might have been expected that working class people would have been able to build on the experience of the lock-out, to have ensured that in the new Ireland that came in 1922, the working classes would not be overlooked. The constitutional question had been settled by Irish independence, now there was the opportunity to deal with the types of political issue that were paramount in most European countries. Instead, the 1921 Treaty brought a civil war and the formation of pro- and anti-treaty parties. Working class people organized, but never achieved the level of influence necessary to ensure the issues affecting them were addressed.
Thirty years after the lock-out, the Dublin working classes had completely disappeared from Taioseach Éamon de Valera’s vision for Ireland. In his Saint Patrick’s day address on Radio Éireann in 1943, he articulated an aspiration for an Ireland which made no reference to city dwellers:
The Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul; a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and valleys would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youth, the laughter of happy maidens; whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. For many the pursuit of the material life is a necessity. Man to express himself fully and to make the best use of the talents God has given him, needs a certain minimum of comfort and wealth. A section of our people have not yet this minimum. They rightly strive to secure it and it must be our aim and the aim of all who are just and wise to assist in that effort. But many have got more than is required and are free, if they choose, to devote themselves more completely to cultivating the things of the mind and, in particular, those that make us out as a distinct nation.
Perhaps seventy-five years after his death, the changing demographic patterns, the persistence of the housing crisis, the injustices of the healthcare system, and the inequalities of the education system will finally push the politics of Jim Larkin to the fore.
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