James Larkin (1876-1947)

statue of a man with his arms raised, mouth open and jacket flapping to one side as if in a breeze

Statue of James Larkin by Oisin Kelly

Labour leader

The small statue pictured here, which used to be displayed in the In the Demanding a Voice gallery in the former Museum of Liverpool Life, captures labour leader James Larkin in the full power of his oratory. His story is one of committed, incorruptible self-sacrifice to the labour movement.

James was born in Liverpool in 1876, the son of a fitter in a local engineering firm. He was taken on as an apprentice at the firm when he was 11 years old. The pay was poor and he left to earn more money. He worked as a butcher's assistant, paperhanger, French polisher and at the docks. The 1890s was a period of high unemployment and finding work was becoming more difficult. James decided to stow away on a ship. He jumped ship at St Lucia and travelled around South America for a year.

When he returned unemployment was still a problem. James joined in the many public protest meetings. He was a member of the Independent Labour Party and helped form a branch in Toxteth, south Liverpool. At the age of 27 he became a foreman dock-porter for T & J Harrison Ltd. He joined the National Union of Dock Labourers in 1901 and was a prominent voice in the 1905 strike. He became a union organizer and worked to support the Parliamentary Labour candidate for Toxteth. Later he was elected as General Organizer of the National Union of Dock Labourers and set to work reorganizing the Scottish ports.

In 1907 he united and led Catholic and Protestant dock workers in Belfast against Unionist bosses. Six years later he led 20,000 workers in the great Dublin lockout. He achieved international fame as a revolutionary trade unionist. He left Ireland in 1914 for America where he became a founder member of the American Communist Party. In 1919 he was arrested, charged with criminal anarchy and sentenced to five to ten years in the notorious Sing Sing prison. His supporters successfully campaigned for his release and he returned to Ireland in 1923. He continued to play a prominent role in Irish politics, fighting against the right wing bureaucracy of the labour movement. He died in 1947.

"While the accursed wage system lasts, let us see to it that we shall get the highest wages we can force from the employers; let us see to it that we can compel them to recognise the best possible conditions; let us forget that we are sectionalised; let us forget our craft lines of demarcation; let us also forget the sex distinction in the workshop, and live according to the truest spirit within us."
James Larkin

Suggested further reading: 'James Larkin, Irish Labour Leader 1876-1947' by Emmet Larkin.