In 1909, Jim Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. It would remain a force in Irish society for the next 80 years – but Larkin’s role in creating the ITGWU would be almost a side story to a life of achievements of a remarkable man.
James Larkin was born in 1876 in the slums of Liverpool where his parents toiled at hard labor jobs for tiny wages, a situation that all but assured a lifetime of bleak poverty.
Larkin attended a few years of grammar school but soon began working as a child laborer to help his family survive. When his father died when Jim was just 14, a life of hard labor and poverty seemed preordained.
But Jim Larkin was no ordinary young man. He developed an intense distaste for the shocking social injustice that was his life, but also the lives of his fellow Irishmen – masses of people leading a hopeless existence under the thumb of a tiny class of elites who kept all money and power to themselves.
Larkin may have had a rudimentary education, but he had a keen intellect that grasped larger issues. Even more so, he was a naturally gifted, powerful speaker with a special talent for inspiring men to action.
As a young man in his twenties while working on the docks, Larkin began organizing strikes and preaching the gospel of unions. He was also enamored with the works of Karl Marx and embraced the concepts of Socialism and Communism.
It might be said that Larkin’s appreciation of Marx was less about ideology than about that plain fact that everyone he knew lived in poverty despite working long hours every day for starvation wages. Larkin is famous for coining the phrase, “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”
That’s what it got down to for Jim Larkin. But to achieve a fair wage for the masses of poor Irishmen, Larkin inevitably embraced those elements that have long been anathema to Western governments – specifically, Larkin developed deep ties to the Soviet Union where Socialist revolutionaries had just overthrown the centuries-old aristocracy of Tsarist Russia.
Trucking with Russians and Communists did nothing to endear Larkin to Great Britain and the United States – in fact, when Larkin moved to the U.S. in 1914 it was not long before he found himself locked in prison on charges of inciting social anarchy.
But history has been kind to the man who is known today in Ireland as “Big Jim” Larkin. A statue of Larkin graces a prominent location on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. The monument displays the man with his arms outstretched beckoning people to rise and fight for their basic human rights. An inscription on the pedestal reads: “The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.”
It’s a fitting tribute who did so much to lift his fellow man out of the depths of poverty to a life of dignity.’