Background

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 1913, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 21

Jim Larkin—like many socialists of the fin de siècle he was essentially a moralist who believed in setting a good example..

Jim Larkin—like many socialists of the fin de siècle he was essentially a moralist who believed in setting a good example..

Big Jim Larkin was born on 28 January 1874 at 41 Combermere Street, in an Irish Catholic working-class enclave near the south-end docks in Liverpool. Both his parents came of tenant farmer stock from around Newry, and Jim would claim that his father and uncles had been Fenians. The second of six children, he grew up to be a big, headstrong, temperamental lad. Family, dockland, class struggle, the sentimental nationalism of Irish exiles, and Jim’s natural talent for oratory and leadership, coupled with increasing personality problems, would shape his life. Leaving school at the age of eleven, Jim went through a few dead-end jobs until he found work as a docker and settled into a more responsible lifestyle. He acquired an enduring love of literature and devoted his free time to charity and politics. A hatred of the way capitalism set man against man had turned him to socialism; like many socialists of the fin de siècle, he was essentially a moralist who believed in setting a good example. He didn’t gamble, drink or smoke—though he would later take a cigar or a pipe. By 1903 he was a foreman-docker at T. & J. Harrison’s and married Elizabeth Brown, daughter of a Baptist lay-preacher who ran a dockside temperance café. They would have four sons. The marriage was a civil ceremony. Jim was an ‘ethnic Catholic’, who could be fiercely defensive about the Church and equally scathing of clerical hypocrisy. In 1905 he joined a strike at Harrison’s and lost his job. Recognising his abilities, the Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) made him an organiser, and in 1907 he was posted to Belfast.

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