James Connolly said of Larkin, his colleague in the labour movement: "We have amongst us a man of genius, of splendid vitality, great in his conceptions, magnificent in his courage". GB Shaw described him as ‘the greatest Irishman since Parnell’.
James Larkin was actually born in Liverpool but of Irish parents; he was raised in poverty and received little formal education. Forced into casual labour as a child, he had by his twenties found regular employment in the city’s docks. It was primarily from his personal experience of deprivation that he acquired his life-long commitment to revolutionary socialism, the destruction of capitalism, hatred of exploitation and strong identity with the underprivileged. He initially rose to prominence during a dock strike in 1905 and the following year was invited to become full-time organiser of the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). Sent to Belfast in 1907, he was the first person to attempt to organise its unskilled labour force. He established a union branch which local employers sought to break by means of a lockout and a bitter dispute followed (May-November 1907). It ended when the NUDL leaders reached a settlement over his head.
In 1908 the NUDL sent Larkin to Dublin to mobilise port workers there but, feeling betrayed by events in Belfast and anxious to break free from British trade unionism, he established his own union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). Within three years it had become Ireland’s largest and most militant union and he himself had become the object of workers’ adulation. He was an inspiring orator, physically powerful, and tireless in his efforts on behalf of his workers. Seeking not only to improve their working conditions but also to restore their self-respect, he supported policies that promoted social equality and justice and encouraged cultural and social achievement. He rented accommodation in Clontarff and acquired Liberty Hall in 1912 as the union’s headquarters. In 1911, he established a weekly newspaper, the ‘Irish Worker and People’s Advocate’ which reached a circulation of 20,000 and was arguably the most effective propaganda sheet at that time in Ireland.
Meanwhile the ITGWU had succeeded in organising all the unskilled labour in the capital apart from the Corporation, the building trade, Guinness’ Brewery and the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC). Larkin’s confrontation with the DUTC precipitated the 1913 Dublin Lockout. The episode showed his courage perhaps more than his judgement, and illustrated the impetuous and unpredictable side of his nature. Defeat devastated his union. In October 1914, he left for the US to raise funds to rebuild it. Whilst there he opposed American entry into World War I, acclaimed the Russian revolution and was imprisoned for almost three years during the ‘red scare’ (1919) before being deported in 1923. Despite his strenuous efforts Larkin never regained his earlier domination of the Irish labour movement. His militancy led to his expulsion from the union he had founded but he was on two occasions elected to the Dail. He died in 1947.