HSIR 38 (2017) 255â€“70
Emmet Oâ€™Connor, Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker? (University College
Dublin Press: 2015), xvii + 353 pp., â‚¬40, ISBN 978-1-906539-93-5.
Jim Larkin was a much mythologized figure. Born into the Liverpudlian
poverty that was the lot of many nineteenth-century Irish emigrants, he
became an icon for the Dublin working class. The root of this reverence
lay in the years between 1909 and 1914 when he led the Irish Transport and
General Workersâ€™ Union (ITGWU) in a crusade to organize and mobilize
the so-called unskilled. His physical presence on the platform was complemented by a massive voice; he could dominate huge open air meetings. He
spoke for rather than to the multitude, articulating their anger and their
dreams. His tenderness towards the sufferings of the poor came not from
any treatise but from his own life. Such sensitivity cohabited with wrath
towards any who resisted the demands of the exploited, whether uncaring
and unbending employers, or remote and unresponsive trade-union officials.
Yet Larkinâ€™s strengths must be set against damaging flaws. His career for its
last three decades offered a mix of volatility and vendettas that made him
a divisive and authoritarian presence in the struggling post-independence
Irish labour movement.
Oâ€™Connorâ€™s biography offers a serious and scholarly study of Larkin, his
successes and disasters, his talents and his capacity for self-destruction. He
has mined an impressive range of archival material in Ireland, Britain and
Russia. Larkin left minimal correspondence; verdicts on him by contemporaries were heavily evaluative and often critical. Oâ€™Connorâ€™s use of press
material, not least from the United States, is indispensable for any credible
account of a radical whose fortes were the mass meeting and accessible
journalism. The result is a study that is rigorously anti-mythological. This
is very much Larkin in all his complexity; as Oâ€™Connor acknowledges there
remain unresolved questions of motivation and action.
Typically even Larkinâ€™s date and place of birth have been debated.
Oâ€™Connor establishes that he was born in 1874, two years earlier than
the frequently assigned date; more significantly his birthplace was