Jim Larkin and his leadership of the ITGWU during the 1913 Lockout remains the most iconic moment in the history of the Irish labour movement.

The images of 1913 are immortalised on union banners and often referenced by current union leaders.

However, for social historians such as Liz Gillis the official story of Jim Larkin and the struggle of the workers has been sanitised in a manner which removes its relevance to current workplace relations.

“The comforting myth of 1913 is that poor Dubliners fought a losing battle against an evil employer but within a few years the justice of their cause was recognised. As we know, that is not the reality with the right to organise in a trade union still a major issue for workers in Ireland today”, Gillis said.

“What Larkin’s great opponent in the Lockout, William Murphy and his colleagues in the Dublin Chamber of Commerce objected to was the organisation of unskilled workers, and crucially, by Larkin. Murphy made clear that his argument with Larkin’s union was not about wages and conditions but because business could not co-exist alongside the ‘system known as syndicalism’ or ‘sympathetic strikes’. It was a political confrontation which remains very relevant”, she added.

 Larkin was born 150 years ago on the 28th January, 1874 into an Irish immigrant family in Liverpool. His parents hailed from county Armagh and county Down. He was brought up a Catholic and practiced his faith throughout his life.

However, the biblical references which littered his oratory were also due to his education in socialism within a British labour movement that was strongly influenced by radical, non-conformist Protestant sects and a father-in-law who was a lay Baptist preacher.

Despite clearly identifying as Irish and Catholic throughout his time as a union leader, Larkin would face condemnation from opponents and the right-wing press as a ‘Godless foreigner’ and even a ‘Liverpudlian Orangeman’.

Indeed, much of political nationalism opposed the growth of the ITGWU after its founding by Larkin in 1909 as a separate Irish union not answerable to a headquarters in England. It represented a challenge to the Irish elite, both unionist and nationalist. Many leading nationalists were determined to prove that self-government would be orderly and well managed, not the chaos that unionists predicted.

The Home Rule party claimed to represent Irish workers and even to be a ‘labour’ party but, with few exceptions, it supported the employers in 1913. Its deputy leader John Dillon warned that Larkin was ‘a very dangerous enemy to Home Rule, the government and the Nationalist Party.’ The ITGWU, personified by Larkin, was seen as dangerous, irresponsible and ‘anarchistic’ for unleashing onto the streets people whom the middle and upper classes despised and feared.

Larkin organised dockers and carters, but also paperboys and golf caddies, sandwichmen and bill posters. During 1911, the union fought a six-month battle in Wexford town, where workers were locked out by iron foundry bosses. Larkin had earlier been the inspirational leader of major disputes in Belfast and Cork. Larkin’s sister, Delia, became general secretary of the Irish Women Workers Union organising in Dublin’s Jacob’s biscuit factory. An ITGWU dispute with the Great Southern and Western Rail company resulted in a Dublin Chamber of Commerce emergency session in which employers were urged to unite against what was ‘not a strike in an ordinary sense…but the beginning of a social war.’

Labour historian, Luke Dineen, says such negative perceptions of the ITGWU were shared to an extent by established craft unions.

“There was no universal welcome for Larkin and the ITGWU arriving on the scene, spreading the ‘divine gospel of discontent’ in the ‘OBU’, the one big union. As Larkin explained they were ‘going to advocate one society for Ireland for skilled and unskilled workers, so that when a skilled man is struck at, out comes the unskilled man, and when an unskilled worker is struck at, he will be supported by the skilled tradesman.’

He added: “All were welcome in the union’s ranks, though it was the large numbers of unskilled, often excluded from other unions and subject to the whims of employers, that were primarily attracted to it.” The ITGWU went down to defeat in 1913 but Larkinism would continue to inspire future generations of trade unionists in Ireland.

This article written by SIPTU Journalist, Scott Millar, originally appeared in the latest issue of Liberty Newspaper. * Pictured is Ruairi Heading, actor debuting his incarnation of Big Jim Larkin at the recent Larkin150 event in Liberty Hall.