Published in Éire, 16 June 1923
I do not at this moment remember the date, but it was while I was living at Belcamp Park, about eight miles outside Dublin, that one morning the papers contained a piece of news that filled me with hope, admiration, sympathy and delight. A man had arisen in Ireland with an illuminating new idea. The man was Jim Larkin, and the idea was that Irish labour must not be controlled from England.
Hitherto there had been a great deal of muddled thinking around international socialism and its relation to Irish independence, fostered no doubt by the common enemy. Here was a man who had the brain and the courage to demonstrate by his actions that international socialism does not stand for the merging of our identity with that of England, does not demand the subjection of races, but stands for free nations or national units who, on a basis of absolute equality, associate together for the purpose of obtaining and holding for the people nationally, and for the nations internationally, a noble civilisation that should be based on national governments by the people and for the people, and the international union of these governments on the basis of humanity, to preserve peace, and to put an end to the control of world affairs by international financiers who foment wars between nations for their own profits, and who in their pursuit of wealth trick nations into policies which subject the majority of the human race to lives of misery and slavery culminating too often in the horrors of famine and war.
Up till Jim Larkin’s advent in Ireland the unions were mainly organised and controlled from England. This was defended on “international” lines. In consequence, Irish interests were neglected and Irish nationality obscured. “Common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain” was being slowly accomplished through the trade unions. The minds of the workers were trained to turn to England submissively, and thus the realm of labour was ruled and took its orders from England just as the political machine, so-called the Irish Government in Dublin Castle, did from the British Cabinet.
Jim Larkin knew this instinctively because of the rebel blood in his veins. He hailed from Liverpool. He had come over to Cork as organiser for an English trade union, but his family were exiles from somewhere in the neighbourhood of Newry, and his stock had contributed a martyr in ’98. Fighting for the rights of his class in his own country, he soon got up against the English executive of the union. He saw the right thing to do, and did it regardless of consequences. He broke away with his branch from the English Transport Workers Union in Dublin.
An Englishman belonging to the English union was able to bring him to court on a technical charge of misappropriating funds, because he had paid over funds in hand to the headquarters in Dublin instead of to the English headquarters. Of course every Irishman in the Cork union had voted for this, but “law and order” had to have its victim, and Larkin went to jail; he was the hero of the hour, and even the judge commented on the injustice of the sentence.
The tremendous political consequences this fight must bring in the future were obvious, so obvious that one wondered that such a thing had never happened before. But it is easy to think of a thing when someone has done it, and here it was done, and a new army was brought into line for Ireland’s national fight with a new leader at its head.
When I saw his release announced in the papers, and that he was advertised to hold a meeting on the next Sunday, I made up my mind to bicycle in and join the welcome that was due to him.
It was a scorching day when I arrived, and Beresford Place was already packed, but, luckily a friend of mine, Mr McGowan, saw me hot and weary in the dense crowd and brought me up on to Larkin’s platform, a lorry, where I could rest in peace.
Sitting there, listening to Larkin, I realised that I was in the presence of something that I had never come across before, some great primeval force rather than a man. A tornado, a storm-driven wave, the rush into life of spring, and the blasting breath of autumn, all seemed to emanate from the power that spoke. It seemed as if his personality caught up, assimilated, and threw back to the vast crowd that surrounded him every emotion that swayed them, every pain and joy that they had ever felt made articulate and sanctified. Only the great elemental force that is in all crowds had passed into his nature forever.
Taller than most men, every line of him was in harmony with his personality. Not so much working man as primeval man. Man without the trickeries and finickiness of modern civilisation, a Titan who might have been moulded by Michaelangelo or Rodin, such is Jim Larkin, and this force of his has magically changed the whole life of the workers in Dublin and the whole outlook of trade unionism in Ireland.
He forced his own self-reliance and self-respect on them; forced them to be sober and made them class conscious and conscious of their nationality, and, little as he guessed it at the time, the fighting leader of the ITWU was one of the great forerunners of Easter Week, 1916.
From that day, I looked upon Larkin as a friend, and was out to do any little thing that I could to help him in his work, but it was only much later that I got a chance to do so. He was very friendly to the Fianna. He had rooms for the union’s headquarters in a house near the arch in Beresford Place at that time, and many a time he lent his big room to the Fianna, who had a small room in the same house. It was in that little room that Con Colbert had proposed me as president.
When I took the little hall, at 5 Lower Camden Street, to start the organisation, I had asked Mr Bulmer Hobson to come along and help. He had the reputation of having run some boys’ football clubs on Gaelic lines in Belfast, and of understanding boys. He was also an IRB man, and very well thought of by Tom Clarke and all the men and women belonging to the separatist movement in Ireland. He always talked about the “principles of Tone and Emmet” and even went so far as to publish a pamphlet entitled Defensive Warfare.
So I thought that I could not do better than ask him to be president of the boys’ organisation. When we called the public meeting, to which were invited all “boys wishing to work for the independence of Ireland”, we put him in the chair, and proposed him for president, while I took the post of co-secretary with one of the boys.
By the time we held our first annual convention the more clear-sighted among the lads had begun to doubt his disinterestedness and courage, and had realised that he was not out for hard work or for trouble, and so they put me into the place that he had occupied, and which I have held ever since.
But those rooms did not remain the headquarters of the ITWU for long. Larkin had great ideas and very soon we heard that his union were buying the huge building which he christened “Liberty Hall”. A branch of the Fianna had a room there, and some of the finest of our young soldiers of the Republic passed through that branch.
It was about this time that our rulers deemed that Ireland was so pacified that it would be an opportune moment for King George V to pay a Royal visit. I was very glad when I heard of it, for I foresaw endless developments and possibilities. Although the people had been patient and tame for so many long years, I knew that a Royal visit would rouse all the old feelings and fan the passionate longings of the people for freedom into a new flame.
A committee was formed from all the national societies and met in 6 Harcourt Street, to consider how best we might make profit for Ireland out of this visit and ensure that it should have no bad effect on Ireland’s national spirit. We had no personal feelings against the King and Queen of England and none of us would have raised a finger against their persons, they might have walked about Ireland forever if they had come as private persons, people would have treated them as visitors to whom a Gaelic courtesy was due. It was quite a different matter if they came as representatives of the country that enslaved us, for their coming in state was just as the jangling of chains in the face of each rebel.
Every Unionist was buying Union Jacks to fly in our faces and desperate attempts were being made to get the Dublin Corporation to meet the Royal Procession at the old boundary, Leeson Street Bridge, with the Mace and the keys and present a “loyal” address. Alderman Kelly and a few could be relied on, but underground influence was brought to bear and it became known that the Lord Mayor intended to meet the King in full state if he could manage to do so.
The Fianna owned a small and old-fashioned press, and we got out a handbill calling on the citizens to “rally in their thousands” outside the Mansion House while a meeting of the Corporation was going on, and to protest against the Dublin Corporation paying homage to, and humbling themselves before, a foreign king.
Miss Molony and some of the boys sat up all night getting the requisite number of bills. We distributed them all round the city next morning, and the result of our exertions was that vast crowds visited the City Hall to see what was going to happen. No lady visitors were allowed in the gallery, and in spite of the valiant efforts made by Alderman Kelly and the Sinn Fein members of the Corporation to fight a way in for us, we were thrown out again and again.
But we accomplished our end, for in spite of the Lord Mayor, Mr O’Farrell, and his Unionist and National Party supporters, who were in the majority, the Corporation did not disgrace the city. We had shown ourselves too strong, and fear of a row at Leeson Street Bridge, and of a disagreeable scene in which the English king would be involved, made the pro-British councillors restrain their ardour and seek for a less public means of displaying their loyalty.