The role of union leaders in the history of attaining worker’s rights is celebrated like nowhere else in Ireland as leading figures of the short history of independence and the struggle to achieve freedom from England are still revered in the country. One of the names most associated with the arrival of freedom in Ireland is James “Big Jim” Larkin who did more than almost anybody to secure the freedom of the Irish Republic and the rights of workers across the nation.
Although Larkin was not born in Ireland, his heritage was Irish and he spent the majority of his early life living with his grandparents in the traditionally Catholic and socialist Derry region of the nation. Born in 1876, James Larkin moved to Ireland as an infant and lived with his grandparents until 1885 when he was returned to his native Liverpool to begin his working career; lacking a formal education, Larkin set out on a series of manual jobs which would eventually lead to him taking a position at the Liverpool Docks. Larkin’s impressive leadership during a strike in Liverpool led by the National Dock Laborers Union eventually brought him to the attention of union leaders and the full-time role of the union organizer.
Arriving in Ireland after a tense period with NDLU leaders in 1907, Larkin began attempts to organize workers into the union which frustrated him due to the lack of support from England. Not only would Larkin form two unions of his own in the form of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and the Irish Worker’s Union but he would also become a leading light in the drive for independence from England with the formation of the Irish Labour Party alongside leading Republicans such as James Connelly.
History often overlooks the role James Larkin played in the drive for a free Ireland because of his decision to leave the country in 1914 and embark on a proposed speaking tour of Ireland. While Connelly is enshrined as an Irish martyr for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising and his death at the hands of a British firing squad, Larkin was locked away in a U.S. jail for his supposedly anarchistic view of socialism. Despite the fact his period of influence in Ireland was limited to just a few short years, “Big Jim” Larkin has a statue in a prime position in the Irish capital of Ireland and had more than 200,000 mourners at his funeral.