Look up at the stars
Throw the light into dark places
You can’t see the heavens above
When you’re down there on your knees…
Many consider them the two greatest Irishmen, yet one was born in Edinburgh, the other in Liverpool. Though their reputations tend to wax and wane with the economic barometer, let us dwell on the lives of James Connolly and Big Jim Larkin on the approach of Labor Day.
Despite his Republican sympathies, my grandfather - a small businessman and their contemporary - considered Connolly a “troublemaker,” but spoke well of Larkin.
Both grew up in dire poverty, worked as children, were self-educated, read voraciously, inspired fierce loyalty, and fought bitter battles with the Catholic Church.
Yet Larkin was the more popular. Could it have been the temperament bequeathed by their birthplaces - Connolly from dour Edinburgh and Larkin from ebullient Liverpool?
Connolly, a storied organizer, was also a Marxist theoretician; his tracts are still studied and he is often cited in the battle against the integration of Ireland into the European Community. Loosely speaking, he felt that any union of capitalist-run countries would be inimical to the welfare of workers.
Larkin, on the other hand, was less concerned with theory but more instinctive and passionate. Sean O’Casey, an intimate of both, preferred Larkin, feeling that the Liverpool man would not only put a loaf of bread on each worker’s table but also a flower in a vase.
The streets of Wexford rang with their names in 1911. The town then boasted a number of large manufacturing works whose owners resolved to lock out any worker who joined a non-approved union.
Both men led torchlight processions, spoke at large rallies and urged the workers to resist. This led to tremendous hardship; scabs were imported, riots broke out and a man was killed in a baton charge.
Most workers were forced to capitulate, and Connolly and Larkin retreated to Dublin. The strike led to much bitterness and heightened class division in Wexford; it also bred a certain distaste for the parochial clergy who had sided with the bosses - as opposed to the local Franciscans who had ministered to the hungry.
Battle was rejoined on an even greater scale in 1913 when Connolly and Larkin led the Dublin workers during the Great Lockout. They were outlasted by a confederation of employers led by William Martin Murphy, owner of many businesses including the Irish Independent.
The Irish hierarchy did not endear themselves to the workers either when they successfully objected to the children of destitute strikers being sent to the homes of sympathetic British (Protestant) trade unionists.
However little love was also lost between workers and nationalists such as Arthur Griffith, leader of Sinn Fein, and even the radical Irish Republican Brotherhood, because of their lack of support - mostly on account of class differences.
The defeat in 1913 profoundly affected both strike leaders. Larkin departed for the US where he became an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. He stridently opposed the US entry into World War 1. A victim of the “Red Scare,” in 1920 he was sentenced to ten years in Sing-Sing for “criminal anarchy.” He was pardoned and deported back to Ireland by Governor Al Smith in 1923.
Hardened by his experiences, Connolly formed the Irish Citizen Army to protect the working classes from goons and police. Although still disdainful of many in the Republican movement, he led the united forces of the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army in the failed Insurrection of 1916.
Badly wounded, he was tied to a chair and shot in Kilmainham Jail by British firing squad. Many feel that this was on the insistence of his old foe, William Martin Murphy.
There is a lone statue to Connolly in Troy, NY. The fiery and charismatic Larkin is largely forgotten.
Both were unapologetic socialists, each would have been scathing of the current debate on health care reform and one can only imagine their response to the balance of power between employers and workers. But it is as leaders of the labor movement that we salute them on this coming Labor Day.
Then Jem yelled out “oh, citizens, this sytem is a curse
An English boss is a monster, an Irish one even worse
They’ll never lock us out again and here’s the reason why
My name is James Connolly, I didn’t come here to die