Jim Larkin, James Connolly and the 1913 Free Trade Hall meeting

On 16 November 1913 a historic meeting took place at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in support of the Dublin Lockout, a huge industrial and social struggle which had brought the city of Dublin to a halt. The meeting was addressed by the leaders of the strike, Jim Larkin and James Connolly, and other trade unionists. The hall was packed and thousands gathered in the streets outside.

The last years before the First World War have often portrayed as lost age of peace, social harmony and long drowsy summers swept away by the cataclysm of war. Nothing could be further from the truth. Edwardian society was shaken to its roots by the militant campaign for votes for women, the growth of mass trade unionism and the rise of Irish nationalism which sought independence from Britain.

On of the most significant episodes was the Dublin Lockout of 1913. The lockout began on 26th August after William Murphy, owner of the Dublin United Tramways Company, sacked 100 men for joining the Irish Transport and General Workers Union which, under the leadership of Jim Larkin, had organised most of the unskilled workers in Dublin. Murphy was determined to keep the union off the trams. The temperature was raised when the police began attacking strikers’ demonstrations, killing one man and injuring hundreds. Other employers locked out ITGWU members and by early September some 25,000 workers were on the cobbles. Delia Larkin and Constance Markiewicz organised a vast relief operation to feed strikers and their families from their base in Liberty Hall, the union headquarters.

Larkin had been born of Irish parents on 21st January 1876 in Cumberland Street, Liverpool. At the age of 17 he joined the Independent Labour Party and, after a year away at sea, became a regular worker at the south end of the docks, rising by 1903 to the much sought after position of foreman dock porter and acquiring the nickname “The Rusher” for the pace at which he worked his men. He neither smoked nor drank, nor accepted bribes to give men jobs. Outside work he was an active socialist and became involved in trade unionism after a bitter and unsuccessful thirteen week strike in June 1905 at the end of which Larkin had emerged as a charismatic strike leader with the ability to address large crowds and inspire the union membership. He was quickly taken on by the union as a paid organiser working in Scotland and Ireland until he was sacked in 1908 after a strike in Cork.

The leader of the union Jimmy Sexton, a former Fenian, now feared that Larkin’s activities in Ireland would bleed the union dry. It was also a political conflict. Sexton believed in making gains for the working class within the status quo and indeed eventually became MP for St. Helens in 1918. Larkin’s ultimate objective was to organise the working class for social revolution. In response to his dismissal Larkin now set up the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and fought the NUDL for the waterfront workers in Ireland.

On Sunday 14th September Larkin paid a brief visit to Manchester to speak at an afternoon meeting at Alexandra Park, organised by the Manchester & Salford Trades and Labour Council to protest against events in Dublin. He was not billed to appear as a speaker but an unofficial announcement had been made a few days earlier. Soon after the chair Tom Fox (President of the Trades Council) and other speakers had ascended the platform Larkin appeared in the crowd and was immediately recognised (despite his latest “disguise,” a shaven top lip) and invited onto the platform.

Mr Partridge from the Dublin Trades Council spoke first, declaring that the troubles in Dublin arose not from a strike or simple lock-out, but from a conspiracy between the representatives of the government and the employers to smash trade unionism. He denounced “the drunken frenzy” of the police and, after mentioning some specific cases of brutality, produced from his breast pocket a broken truncheon which, he said, had been shattered on the head of an unoffending citizen and which, he added grimly, the man who used it would not need again for some time to come.

Speaking next Larkin apologised for his intrusion without notice and added that, in spirit, he was still across the channel. He was full of confidence. “When William Martin Murphy and his hired thugs set out to make good their boast that they will beat Larkinism they will fail because to beat Larkinism is to beat the race to which I belong…..I have a divine mission to make men and women discontented, and no one can stop me carrying on the work for which I was born.”

He denounced Murphy, Carson, Redmond and the TUC amongst others and announced that he was out for revolution, “…..they can only kill me and there are thousands more coming after me”. At the end of his speech Larkin said he was immediately returning to Dublin. Alf Purcell moved a resolution protesting against the brutality of the Dublin police and demanding an enquiry into their conduct which was carried to the accompaniment of cheers.

Larkin returned to Manchester on 26th September to send off the steamer Hare with 250 tons of provisions for starving families, in the company of Keir Hardie of Labour Party Fame, Jimmy Sexton and others. He was jailed for sedition in Dublin on 27th October, but released after just 17 days, following protests in Ireland and Britain by leading figures such as Sylvia Pankhurst and George Bernard Shaw. Impatient with the lack of support shown by the British TUC, Larkin and Connolly toured Lancashire in November, calling for more action to support the struggle in Ireland.

On 16th November they spoke in Manchester, accompanied by the leading American socialist Big Bill Haywood with support from the Labour MP Ben Tillett. Before the meeting they visited the Socialist Clarion Cafe on Market Street (where their picture was taken) then walked to the Free Trade Hall which was packed with five thousand people with thousands more standing in the street in the rain unable to get in.

“The working class of Dublin is being slowly murdered” James Connolly told the audience. Connolly had been born in Edinburgh in 1868, his parents emigrating from County Monaghan. He served 7 years in the British army and became a Socialist in 1889 whilst back in Scotland. Moving to Dublin he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896. He spent some time in the United States before returning to Ireland to work with Larkin in the ITGWU. He had incidentally visited Manchester several times before in the early years of the century to give lectures on Socialism.

Connolly was followed by Jim Larkin spoke to the packed hall for an hour. The Manchester Guardian described the working-class orator in action. “Larkin is something over forty years of age. His plentiful hair is a dusky grey, and over his forehead, until, disarranged by the straying of his fingers, it stands out like the peak of a cap… Standing with a light poise, turning sharply from side to side, gesticulating with outstretched arms frequently but with restraint, speaking with great vehemence and often with anger he carried the conviction of sincerity.”

After the meeting he drove in a closed car through the crowds to a nearby speaking pitch, then got out and spoke again to several thousand people, publicly challenging his enemies. “Who am I? I am James Larkin, son of James Larkin, the son of Barney Larkin of County Armagh. Ask my accusers for yourselves. Send them over to face me in Dublin.”

The dispute ended in early 1914 “as a drawn battle” in the words of Connolly. In its aftermath it left a politicized working-class in Dublin conscious of its strength. It also led to the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, a workers’ militia originally set up by Connolly to defend people from police violence but which now continued to train and drill after the strike with a membership of a thousand and which played a major role in the Easter Rising in 1916. Larkin went to the United States in late 1914 and did not return to Ireland until 1923. Connolly was shot by a British Army firing squad on 12th May 1916. He was seated in a chair, having been badly wounded during the Rising.

Article by Michael Herbert

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2 thoughts on “Jim Larkin, James Connolly and the 1913 Free Trade Hall meeting

  1. Pingback: The March 1920 Stockport By-Election « Manchester's Radical History

  2. Pingback: 16th November 1913 (Sunday) | onehundredyearsagotoday

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