The Catholic Communist
Bertram D. Wolfe, 1965
Big Jim Larkin appeared in our midst surrounded by legend. The year was 1917; I for one had not known him earlier. Though many of the legends surrounding him could not have been so, they seemed appropriate to his person, and on the whole believable.
James Robert Larkin was a big-boned, large-framed man, broad shoulders held not too high nor too proudly, giving him an air of stooping over ordinary men when he was speaking to them. Bright blue eyes flashed from dark heavy brows; a long fleshy nose, hollowed out cheeks, prominent cheek bones, a long, thick neck, the cords of which stood out when he was angry, a powerful, stubborn chin, a head longer and a forehead higher than in most men, suggesting plenty of room for the brain pan. Big Jim was well over six feet tall, so that I, a six-footer, felt small when I looked up into his eyes. Long arms and legs, great hands like shovels, big, rounded shoes, shaped in front like the rear of a canal boat, completed the picture.
The legend surrounding him with the greatest glory was that he had personally participated in the armed defense of Liberty Hall, Dublin, during the Easter, 1916, uprising, and, when all was lost, had escaped from the rear of the Hall disguised as an old crone. The legend was utterly incompatible with those huge hands and feet, that long, powerful, masculine face, those great shoulders. Stoop as he would, he could not have passed off as an old crone. But I was inclined to believe it until, years later, I learned that he had left Dublin for America in 1914 to get guns and money from the Germans, and could not possibly have been in Liberty Hall on Easter Sunday, 1916, since he did not return to Ireland until he was released from a New York State jail in 1923.
When Larkin spoke, his blue eyes flashed and sparked. He roared and thundered, sputtered and – unless a stage separated him from the public – sprayed his audience with spittle. Sometimes an unruly forelock came down on his forehead as he moved his head in vigorous emphasis. Impulsive, fiery, passionate, swift at repartee, highly personal, provocative, and hot tempered in attack, strong and picturesque of speech, Larkin's language was rich in the turns of Irish poetic imagery sprinkled with neologisms of his own devising. Particularly in front of an Irish or an Irish-American audience, or an audience of bewildered foreign-born socialists unprepared for poetry and religion in Marxist oratory, he was the most powerful speaker in the left wing socialist movement.
Born in the slums of Liverpool in 1876, he was twenty years my senior. In 1917, when I became aware of his presence in America, he had just turned forty-one. His grandfather, an Irish Fenian who had fled to Liverpool, had communicated to him the picturesque flavor and poetic richness of speech and accent – and a keen sense of Ireland's wrongs. Orphaned when in the fourth grade in school, Jim thenceforth had to shift for himself, working at a multitude of trades and occupations: delivery boy for a butcher, painter and paperhanger (for which his tall frame with its built-in stepladder fitted him admirably), factory worker, dairy worker, sailor both in merchant vessels and in the American navy, ship's fireman, mechanical engineer, docker, soldier, an organizer of the Irish Republican Army, labor leader, pamphleteer, journalist, editor, and, while in prison in the United States, baker, textile worker, tinsmith, and bookbinder. In addition to these varied pursuits, he bad been a professional soccer player, a social worker, always an agitator, and, to the end of his days, a temperance advocate who would not touch strong drink.
More remarkable than his many professions was his compound of beliefs. An Irish Nationalist to the core of his being, he was at the same time a revolutionary socialist and internationalist. One of the founders of the left wing of the Socialist Party and a brilliant communist orator in the formative days of the American Communist Party, he was nevertheless, as befits an Irishman, a devout Catholic, a true son of his Church, believing in its dogmas, its creed, the authority of its hierarchical powers, and every detail of its rule.
In America, he was anti-war not because he opposed war for the freedom of Ireland, but because he opposed America's entrance into the war on the side of England. Yet he was not anti-English either, not anti-Protestant. He was not pro-German, though he accepted German money to buy arms for The Irish Rebellion, and, no doubt, did things to block England's war efforts. Surrounded as he was by Irish seamen, Irish longshoremen, Irish couriers, he had no difficulty arranging for a clandestine trip overseas, nor getting commands carried out by an army of followers.
Yet the Connolly Club, which he founded on West 29th Street in New York City by the simple expedient of leading a band of his followers in capturing for the left wing of the Socialist Party the old Socialist Party's headquarters by breaking the lock, and then moving in bodily, with his cookstove for frying eggs and Irish bacon, his Irish Worker, his mimeograph machine, and his hangers on had room for workingmen of all nationalities, Jewish cloakmakers, Scotsmen and Englishmen, Germans, Bulgarians, Yugo-Slavs, Russians, Greenwich Villagers. Wide-eyed they listened to the poetry of Larkin's speech, his intemperate polemics, his crotchets, his mixture of creeds.
To his home in Patchin Place, where he likewise held forth, there came men of all nations, Irish labor leaders, American leaders of Irish descent, representatives of the German Embassy and German agents, American left wing socialists, Greenwich Village Pacifists, members of the IWW. His lieutenants included a Canadian Irishman named Curley, Tom O'Flaherty, Patrick Quinlan of the IWW, Shaemus O'Shael, Eadmonn MacAlpine. It was through his rebel network of seamen and longshoremen in New York Harbor that he fixed up the trip that took John Reed to Soviet Russia with forged seaman's papers, wearing a fisherman's shirt and passing as a sailor on some Scandinavian ship.
When Larkin voiced his religious opinions, it was with no reticence, defiantly, as something he had a right to believe in. It might seem strange to his atheistic auditors, schooled in agnosticism, or dogmatic materialism of one kind or another, but for him Catholicism was the unifying creed of Irishmen, the banner of their struggle for freedom, the foundation of his simple socialism. Once at a meeting in the New Star Casino he shocked his audience by flaunting the cross that he always wore buttoned in his shirt. As its gold glinted, he cried to his audience: 'There is no antagonism between the Cross and socialism! A man can pray to Jesus the Carpenter, and be a better socialist for it. Rightly understood, there is no conflict between the vision of Marx and the vision of Christ. I stand by the Cross and I stand by Karl Marx. Both Capital and the Bible are to me Holy Books.'
Marx would have been as surprised and shocked as Larkin's self-righteous audience, and so indeed would many a Christian Father. But that was Larkin's socialism, behind it was a long tradition of Christian socialism, in England, in America, and in the streets of Dublin. The American socialists of the moment had forgotten yesterday's socialism with the Reverend Bouck White's The Call of the Carpenter, as they had the Christian socialism of Great Britain. Though the conservative wing was then dominant in the Catholic Church, there was even at that moment in Washington, a Catholic clerical group headed by Father John A. Ryan, who was concerned with labor organization and the welfare of the workingmen, in a spirit not out of line with the somewhat eclectic socialism of Jim Larkin.
Pope Gregory XVI had voiced the Church's awareness of the new problems of the working class in urban, industrialized society a decade before the Communist Manifesto was written. Many churchmen urged upon wealthy parishioners the use of Christian principles in dealing with workingmen and their families. Pope Leo's Rerum Novarum (Of Modern Matters – otherwise known as the 'Encyclical on The Condition of Labor') recognized the Church's responsibility for a society generous and just to the poor and to the laborer, and urged that many of the tenets of socialism, freed from class hatred and atheism, and no doubt from the turbulent belligerence of Jim Larkin, were entirely consistent with Christian doctrine.
While America was at war, the National Catholic Council (today known as the National Catholic Welfare Council), whose leading figure then was Father John A. Ryan, came out in favor of the organization of the unskilled workingmen, at the same time criticizing the American Federation of Labor for its too exclusive concentration on the skilled crafts. It urged more attention to the migratory, the foreign born, the working men in mass production industries and what social workers call 'the underprivileged.' What was this but the new unionism or the 'one big unionism' of Connolly and Larkin? The statement of the Council was signed by Bishops Muldoon, Rockford, Schrembs, Hayes, Russell, and, of course, Father Ryan. It opposed state ownership of industry and 'complete socialism' but favored consumers' cooperatives, and, where possible, producers' cooperatives in which the workingmen should own their own means of production, and also urged a steadily larger participation of labor in the ownership and management of industry. 'The full possibilities of increased production,' the Council held, 'will not be realized so long as the majority of the workers remain mere wage earners.' They must 'become owners, at least in part, of the instruments of production.' It is to be noted, their manifesto concluded, 'that this particular modification of the existing order, however far-reaching and though involving to a great extent the abolition of the wage system, would not mean the abolition of private ownership. The instruments of production would still be owned by individuals, not by the State.' This was not very different from Larkin's conceptions of socialism, and in America more than in Ireland, justified his faith in the 'more Christian members' in the hierarchy.
In Ireland no unionism would have been possible against the beliefs of the Church. But among the men and women facing Jim Larkin in the New Star Casino, Larkin's was a strange, incredible voice and creed. Whether angered at their reception of his views, or enjoying the sensation he was creating, or driven by an inner compulsion to express his beliefs, Larkin continued to hold the golden cross before him on its chain and proclaim, 'I belong to the Catholic Church. I stand by the Cross and the Bible and I stand by Marx and his Manifesto. I believe in the creed of the Church, apostolic, Catholic, and Roman. I believe in its saints and its martyrs, their struggles and the sufferings of my people. The history of Ireland is full of the same spirit, the same struggles, the same sufferings, the struggles and sufferings of my people. In my land this is not held against a socialist. It speaks for him. I defy any man here or anywhere to challenge my standing as a Catholic, as a socialist, or as a revolutionist. We of the Irish Citizen's Army take communion before we go into battle. We confess our sins. We seek absolution. If a bullet strikes, we hope to have the last rites administered to us before our souls leave our bodies. We do not let the Church stand in the way of our struggle, but neither do we let our struggle stand in the way of the Church.'
Larkin's natural rebelliousness was intensified when at eighteen he shipped for America as a stowaway, was caught and put in irons on shipboard, then jailed for a month in New York. America did not yet have the system of deportation of immigrants which was to come as a by-product of the period between the wars. In jail he read American writers as earlier he had read Irish and English writers. Combative by nature, he was reflective, too, and a romantic who always saw himself as the spokesman and leader of some gallant fight.
There was much in Irish history to nourish that romantic streak in him, for Ireland's struggles were a succession of glorious lost causes centering around men like Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, whose lives and martyrdoms were to him the history of his beloved land and a scenario for his own life. 'Let us rejoice,' he wrote of Robert Emmet, 'that it was vouchsafed to this nation that such a man was given to us . . . the city beautiful that was so plain and dear to him shall also be the city beautiful for us.' And on Wolfe Tone (Larkin was somehow a little warmer and friendlier to me than to most Americans because I shared one of Wolfe Tone's two names) he wrote, 'It was that love, that intense desire to serve Ireland, that was the reason for the man.... Tone was a Republican, a nationalist, an internationalist, a man who sought liberty not for himself but for his fellows – liberty of thought, liberty of action, liberty to live – liberty has reason to be proud of her son Tone.'
In his pictures of Tone and Emmet appeared the traits that he liked to believe he possessed himself. It was of himself and his own aspirations as much as of Robert Emmet that he was speaking when he wrote in the Irish Worker of March 8, 1913, 'Whenever or wherever a rebel is born, breaks a chain, or glorifies her cause by his death, all lovers and worshippers of liberty rejoice at the birth, the tug at the chain, or mourn the loss of the valiant comrade, irrespective of what family or nation the particular rebel belongs to. The fight for liberty is not a parochial or national affair. It is a universal struggle, and all nations, all free men and women rejoice when the devotee of liberty shatters another link of ignorance or slavery. The very sound of the word Freedom, let it be to many or to yourself, you will enjoy a thrill that few enjoy, but what a satisfaction and awakening to the soul it must be to have struck one blow for the cause. . . .' The style is the style of Larkin's oratory as well as of his writing. The slight incoherence of structure, the flaming intensity of feeling, the ardent love of liberty were common to both his oral and his written speech.
This internationalist spoke of patriotism 'as the most beautiful thing on earth, aye in Heaven.' When he saw northern and southern Irishmen at war with each other and refusing to cooperate for common aims, he admonished them, 'Be men! Be Irishmen, and don't disgrace yourselves.' He was angered by the partition of Ireland, but would not admit that the dividing line should separate Irish workingmen North and South, or set workers in Belfast at odds with workers in Dublin. He emphasized what united them, not what divided them. To show what it meant to be 'a man and an Irishman and not disgrace yourself,' he marched arm in arm with Protestant Orangemen of the North saying as he did so, 'Protestants can follow the banners of William of Orange and Catholics can, too, for they are the colors which the Pope blessed.' In the Irish Worker he wrote to the men of the North, 'Workers of Belfast, stop your damned nonsense. . . . Let not what masquerades as religion in this country divide you. . . . Not as Catholics or Protestants, as Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast men and workers stand together and don't be misled by the employers' game of dividing the Catholic and the Protestant.' He was as Catholic as any other true southern Irishman, but the Church was not to be permitted to stand as a barrier between men with common needs and common hopes. That might pass as religion for some, but not for him.
Despite all his trades and professions, Jim Larkin was first and foremost a workingman. When he became a foreman of a group of dockworkers in Liverpool, be sought to organize them and to reform their habits. He neither drank nor smoked himself, engaging in a one man crusade against the drunkenness which was taken for granted among the rough, poor dockworkers over whom he acquired influence. No one ever heard foul language from his lips. He could be as hot tempered as any man, indeed, hotter, but the temper expressed itself in withering repartee, angry condemnation, and scorn, sputtering, unforgettable epithets, never in obscenity.
He absorbed his socialism and his laborism from the slums and the docks, his Irish nationalism from his family and fellow workingmen of Irish origin. Like these he bad a taste for combat and loudmouthed controversy that lifted his voice above the voice of others and made rough men look up to him. Along with socialism came what was then known as the new unionism, the organization of every craft connected with a given industry into a single union. He had no taste for theory at all, but made up for that by a strong sense of justice, and a belief in his personal mission to lead men in combat, in all manner of struggles for a better life, a little more dignity, a little more freedom. He made no appeal to reason, advanced no theories, only recited wrongs and outrages in angry tones, labor's wrongs and Ireland's together. When men fought him, he lashed out not at their ideas but at their persons. When a single symbolic name could not be selected, be still knew how to make the contempt and hatred and anger seem personal. He never excoriated 'the capitalist press,' only a particular newspaper owner or editor who was the target of his wrath. For their part, his opponents and the hostile newspapers paid him in kind. He was a tough Irishman and they were tough Irishmen, and neither side was disposed to give quarter. But no matter how tough his methods of fighting, he knew how to elevate the feelings of those who listened to him. Seán O'Casey was to write of Larkin that be had brought 'not only the loaf of bread but the flask of wine' – poetry and dignity and self-respect to the Irish labor movement.
He wanted to move things forward, not to get to any place in particular. No system or simple solution would ever satisfy him as final. In that sense be was never a socialist at all. Nor was be willing to settle for improvements; for him, the fight for freedom could never end. When John Redmond was willing to compromise the struggle for Irish freedom by settling for home rule within the Empire, Larkin said: 'We are demanding [Home Rule] because of who we are; because it is in our very marrow; because of the men who died that we might live; because in a word we want Home Rule that WE MAY RULE OUR OWN HOME. But no man has a right to fix a Boundary to the March of a Nation; no man has the right to say to his Country, thus far you shall go and no further. We have never attempted to fix the Ne-Plus-Ultra to the progress of Ireland's nationhood, and we never shall.'
The capitals, so to speak, were part of Larkin's style as they were of his oratory, a manner of making the big words resonant and emphatic. And so far as freedom was concerned, there was never a final settlement in that either, or in human dignity, only a series of steps on the road. In this sense Larkin was never a socialist at all because he did not believe in a socialist system complete in all its parts, any more than be did in a capitalist system. There were only varying degrees of exploitation and generosity, and workingmen would never be one whit larger or better just because of some change in the system without a change in their attitudes and behavior as well as in their rights and their dignity.
Larkin had many English, Scottish, Welsh, and Canadian friends. He accepted British trade union aid in the great dockers' strike Of 1913, defying the pronouncements of Archbishop Walsh of Dublin in order to send Irish slum children to the homes of British workingmen, most of them low church dissenters or Christian socialists, to be cared for during the strike. Generally speaking, Larkin omligated every word that the Archbishop of Dublin said – omligate being one of his weird neologisms – but his Grace had to talk good sense and Christian charity or Larkin would have none of his advice or precept.
From boyhood, Jim was an omnivorous reader. That the books within his grasp might be on the Index made no difference. But they had to be full of spirit, brave and free and passionate; they had to be Christian in some sense and strong for liberty or equality.
'How did I get my love of comrades?' he demanded of the testy judge Weeks and the prejudiced jury in his trial in New York for 'criminal anarchy.' 'Only by reading Walt Whitman,' he responded. 'And how did I get this love of humanity, except by understanding men like Thoreau and Emerson . . . and Mark Twain? These are the men I lived with, Your Honor, the real Americans, not the Americans of the Mart and the Exchange, the men who sell their souls for money and sell their country, too.' The testimony did not endear him to the judge nor recommend his case to his jurors.
His love of Irish freedom and of a decent life for the underdog made a rebel of him in the slums of Liverpool and along its dockside. After building some organization among the Irishmen of England, he went to the motherland of his spirit and began his efforts, together with Jim Connolly, to organize the workingmen of Belfast and Dublin. Connolly was the theoretician, having learned the doctrines of socialism and of 'one big union' in America. Larkin was the agitator, the organizer, the fighter on the firing line. He never seemed to prepare a speech, being always ready with invective and his ad libs. Acoustics, whether of hall or roaring streets, were of no moment. His voice was strong and strident, and at climactic points turned to withering scorn or exultant roar. His great service was the organization of the Dublin strike of 1913 and when the police lined up to seek an excuse for breaking up one of his mass meetings, he looked them over and turning to his audience shouted, 'Look at 'em, well-dressed, well-fed! And who feeds them? You do! Who clothes them? You do! And yet they club you! And why? Because they are organized and disciplined and you are not!'
To a British Trade Union Congress which he appealed to on December 9, 1913, for strike action in England to help his losing cause, when speaker after speaker had spoken in the negative, he began with the words, 'Mr. Chairman, labor leaders, and human beings.' They voted funds but no strike action. At another meeting in Scotland in response to a steady cry of 'We want Larkin,' the frightened chairman finally gave him the floor with the words, 'You can speak, Jim, but na personalities,' Larkin echoed his words, 'Na personalities, Mr Chairman, ye are not personalities at all, only things.'
As the long Dublin struggle continued, a certain Captain White, Irish of course, came forward with a proposal for the formation of an Irish citizens' army to protect the workers' meetings, to buy boots and staves and food for them, to drill them as a matter of maintaining discipline. Larkin took up the idea as his own, and thus the Irish Citizen Army was born. Seán O'Casey became its first Secretary.
Many a famous writer enlisted his services in the long and bitter strike. Besides O'Casey there was Padraic Colum, James Stephens, A.E., and even Yeats. As the strike petered out, gun running began for the Irish Citizen Army as well as for the opposing Carsons' Volunteers. For eight months the strike dragged on until all were weary, Connolly and Larkin at odds with each other, starving men and girls afraid to go to Transport Workers Hall and humbly plead for the few jobs that were not occupied by strike-breakers.
Yet the Transport Workers Union now had the solidarity of suffering, a tradition of struggle and self-respect, a martyred leader, a brace of heroes, and the remnants of the Citizen Army which survived the defeat and adopted as its banner the famous plough formed by stars on a blue background. When England and Germany went to war, Connolly felt that England's difficulty was Ireland's opportunity, and began to prepare for rebellion.
All through the strike Connolly had been eclipsed by Larkin's irascible oratory and he was tired of Larkin's headstrong dictatorial methods and uncontrollability. Connolly conceived of the plan of sending Larkin to New York to raise funds and arms from Germany's agents in America, and Larkin himself was glad to go.
His journey to America proved Jim Larkin's undoing. Like Antaeus his strength was great as long as he was in touch with his mother earth. In America he was out of his element. Though he was surrounded by a court of Irishmen, though he set up a journal called the Irish Worker, and founded a Connolly Club, be was somehow lost. He neither knew how to deal with the German agents that came with offers of guns and funds, nor with the Foreign Federations that made up so large a part of the American Socialist Party, nor with the Greenwich Village Bohemians who offered incense and incomprehension, nor with the materialism and atheism that was taken for granted in many of the intellectual circles. He missed the native soil. He missed the Dublin fray. His heart was in the struggle for Irish freedom to which he could now contribute so little.
Connolly took over the office of General Secretary of the Transport Workers Union, though, for prestige's sake, he retained Larkin's name on the letterhead. Shipping arms proved not to be feasible, and though Larkin raised large sums of money, they were mostly for the movement in America under whose auspices he spoke. In the controversy which followed on his return from an American jail to Ireland in 1923, the only sum credited to him as having actually arrived for the rebellion was £100. Yet it was certain that Larkin lived modestly as before and kept nothing for himself. What ate up the funds was the Irish Worker, the National Left Wing Council of the Socialist Party, the anti-war movement, the IWW, and the Connolly Club on 29th Street. He made several attempts to get back to Ireland during the war, even disguising himself to travel under false names, but his disguises were transparent, his huge, big-boned frame and strongly sculptured face could not be disguised, and his apparatus for shipping sailors did not work for his person.
In the American Socialist Party he was an explosive force that they could not manage. When the Left Wing Council of the Party formed in 1917, he got the highest vote of any of its nine candidates, yet he was not altogether at home in the Council either.
On November 8, 1919, a panicky national and state administration staged raids all over New York City and then all over the United States, raids on dance halls where left wing socialists, mostly foreign born, were celebrating the first anniversary of Lenin's seizure of power in Russia. Moving vans backed up at the dance ball entrances, and all the celebrants were herded into them and taken, in New York at least, for questioning by the Lusk Committee set up to study 'revolutionary radicalism.' Virtually all those who spoke English without a foreign accent and seemed to have been born in the United States were released. The rest were held for imprisonment, photographing, and fingerprinting, the police line-up, and deportation. But the nine members of the National Council of the Left Wing of the Socialist Party (or rather eight of them, for they never laid hands on the ninth who was off somewhere in a printing plant editing the Communist World) were held for trial regardless of nationality or accent. Jim Larkin was one of the eight.
When Big Jim arrived at the detention hall where the frightened foreign detainees were huddled together, he restored their courage by mocking at the police and jesting at his plight. Archibald Stevenson, Counsel for the Lusk Committee, tried his hand at interrogating Larkin. But since he refused to tell the prisoner why he was being detained nor what his legal rights were, Larkin met insolence with insolence to the point of a stand-off.
Ultimately, the eight members of the Council were accused of having signed and sponsored the Manifesto of the National Left Wing Council, and held, absurdly, under the provisions of the Criminal Anarchy Law passed by the New York State Legislature in the period of hysteria following the assassination of President McKinley by a crazed anarchist.
Larkin conducted his own defense, and proved as difficult to manage in the courtroom as on the street corner or in a union meeting. He claimed, I think rightly, that he had never read the Manifesto of the Left Wing. It had been written by John Reed and me, and then 'corrected' by Louis Fraina and certain members of the Russian Language Federation, who introduced many Bolshevik elements into what was originally a document of largely native American radicalism. Larkin read it in the courtroom, sentence by sentence, repudiating its continental and Russian orientation, pointing out that his own views had developed out of British and Irish socialist traditions. There were phrases and thoughts on which he would not stand, nor had he had any part in its publication in the Revolutionary Age.
Larkin talked back to Prosecutor Rorke, as to an equal. And though he called the Judge (Weeks) 'Your Honor,' the judge got small comfort out of the tone in which he said it or the way Larkin handled himself in the face of constant threats of additional sentence for contempt of court. Rorke told the jury, a blue ribbon jury drawn from the world of business officials, 'If you believe that this Manifesto means the overthrow of our Government by unlawful means, then sustain this indictment. . . .'
Larkin's summary speech was like an address to a mass meeting, heckled by Judge and Prosecutor but never thrown off balance by their objections and rulings. He told the story of his life as far as they permitted, cited the literature be had read and loved, and made a creditable defense in a technical sense as well.
'The Defendant claims', be said . . . 'that he is not getting tried for any overt act; he is not getting tried for any attempt to commit an overt act; he is getting tried for within his mind focusing the ideas of centuries, and trying to bring knowledge into coordinate form that be might assist and develop and beautify life. That is the charge against the Defendant – that be preached a doctrine of humanity against inhumanity; that be preached the doctrine of order; that he preached the doctrine of brotherhood as against that mischievous, hellish thing of national and brute herd hatred.'
'The Court has been stern with me,' he said in summing up. 'I have been a refractory person before the Court. I cannot preserve the ordinary procedure because I have not been trained in the way of the Court. The ways of the broad highways have been my ways, and I have never been encompassed by walls . . . so it may be tomorrow . . . that in the interest of this great Republic of 110,000,000 Americans, this individual will have to be put away for five or ten years.'
An impartial judge would have directed an acquittal, an impartial jury would have found for the Defendant. But the jury found Jim Larkin guilty, and Judge Weeks sentenced him for 'criminal anarchy,' to a term of not less than five and not more than ten years. In 1923, Governor Alfred E. Smith declared that the trial had been conducted in a moment and in an atmosphere of hysteria and gave the prisoner an unconditional pardon.
While Larkin was out on $25,000 bail, which had to be in cash or Liberty Bonds according to Judge Weeks's ruling, and before be began to serve his term in Sing Sing and Dannemora prisons, he took a flying tour of the United States, no longer as a Communist Party member, but as a political prisoner raising funds for the defense of other politicals. When he got to the West Coast, I was living there and heard him address a huge meeting in San Francisco held under the sponsorship of the Irish Republican Army, the Hindu Gaddr (Freedom) Party, various aboveground and underground organizations run by the Communist Party, a well-known San Francisco open forum, as well as some thirty San Francisco trade unions. His address was as full of fire as ever, so that when he ceased speaking, the money came rolling in in response to his appeal for funds. A question period followed. An inveterate forum goer who was notorious in San Francisco for invariably asking the same question regardless of the subject of the lecture, innocently put to Larkin his pet question.
'Mr. Larkin,' he said, 'what about birth control?'
Big Jim, thinking an insult to his Catholic faith was intended, turned a fiery red, then, when the color receded and he found his tongue he answered: 'It's a Gawd damned shame your-r-r mother-r-r didn't pr-r-actice it!'
That ended the question forever at San Francisco forums. As long as I lived in the city, the questioner never reappeared at another meeting.
When the news of Jim's pardon reached Ireland, his Union Executive wired its congratulations and asked the date of his return. His answer was to send a cable asking for £5000 to be forwarded to him immediately to buy a shipload of food and clothing for the victims of 'fratricidal strife' in Ireland.
A gulf opened between him and the new Executive who knew neither Larkin nor Connolly. He did not fit into the new mood of constructive unionism and building up of industry in the new Irish Free State, and his last years in Ireland proved to be anti-climactic, serving only to show how as a result of his prolonged absence, be had declined as a leader of Irish labor.
A war broke out between the Executive Committee and Larkin's followers, who seized Liberty Hall by direct action only to be ousted by action of the Irish courts. Larkin's trial this time was bedlam-oratorical appeals, insults to opposing witnesses, helpless quarrels with the Court. Reminded of his duty to 'respect the Court,' he roared, 'I will respect the Court when the Court speaks the truth.' Ordered to leave the courtroom, his parting shot was, 'This may be a Court of Law, but it is not a Court of Justice.' In his absence a verdict was found against him.
The Dublin nights were made colorful by his mass meetings, but his style of oratory invited libel actions that kept the town in an uproar. Yet he remained popular with the rank and file dockworkers, who often insisted that he represent them in negotiations.
In 1924, the Moscow Soviet invited Larkin to come to its sessions as a representative of the people of Dublin, but he found nothing there to attract him, nor could they see 'their man' in this wild-hearted rebel. I met him then, in the dining room of a Moscow hotel, where he was raising a series of scandals about the food, the service, and the obtuseness of waiters who could not understand plain English spoken with a thick Irish brogue. Once the usual piece of horse meat in cabbage soup, tough as leather, which was served as the main course and called shchi, yielded to an unexpected delicacy, beet borshch. But from Jim's table came the angry cry, 'Ye can't make me eat this blood soup!' The result was consternation. Another time, he was furiously yelling milk in various tones and accents, which he wanted for his tea, which in Russia was customarily served with lemon. He subsided, speechless, when I told the waiter that he wanted his tea s molokom, nor could he perceive any difference between my words and his. The climax came when Moscow tried to tell Jim Larkin of his duty to 'defend the Soviet Union in the face of the war danger.' 'What God damned fool of a general,' he demanded, 'would ever try to invade this frozen land?' The Moscovites were glad when this eminent Dubliner returned to his native land.
In Ireland Larkin built himself a splinter union and a political movement which won him elections to the Dublin Corporation, and then to the Dáil for a North Dublin constituency in October, 1927. But because of bankruptcy and his failure to pay his legal expenses on his various lawsuits, be was not allowed to take his seat. In 1937 he won the seat for North Dublin once more, and again in 1943 and 1944. In 1944 he was seated, but he proved to have no ability as a legislator in a changed world to which he was now alien.
Later, one of his sons, James, became the leader of his Union, and another, Denis, Lord Mayor of Dublin. In his last years, mellowing a little and losing some of his wildness, Jim served on the Dublin Trades Council, on the Port and Docks Board, and in the Dublin Corporation. The fire and the bluster had gone out of him. Though respected now because of his gray hairs and his long record of service to Ireland and to freedom, he was still feared as a hot-tempered orator who might stray from the subject but never give quarter once in a fighting mood.
During a bitter blizzard on January 30, 1947, Jim Larkin died. Despite the cold and snow, the tumult of Irish crowds which be so loved surrounded the approaches to Saint Mary's Church on Had[d]ington Road, Dublin, and the Civic Guards had to force a passage for his coffin. He lay in state in the church while those who loved him, and many who did not, passed the coffin where one could see the brown rosary beads in his hand, given him by the Archbishop of Dublin.
Big Jim Larkin had never really fitted into the Communist Party, but in the Catholic Church as in the hearts of humble Irishmen, he remained to the end. At his death, many paid tribute to his memory. It was then that Seán O'Casey spoke the famous words that Larkin had brought to the labor movement not only the loaf of bread but the flask of wine. The age of heroic struggle was over in Ireland, and James Larkin had outlived his time. He did not fit into the orderly, constructive, bureaucratized labor movement any more than be was suited to be a puppet of Moscow. But for all the tumult in his temperament and chaos in his action, I have no doubt but that the lot of the unskilled Dublin workingman and the docksider are better for his having lived among them and fought for them.
Published as part of a collection by the author entitled Strange Communists I Have Known, George, Allen & Unwin, 1966.
Back to Larkin
Any constructive comments/suggestions regarding this site? Please direct them to: Matt Kelly