The wonderful statue of Larkin in Dublin's O'Connell Street, by Oisin Kelly

Was labour hero Jim Larkin a racist?

Big Jim Larkin is usually remembered one dimensionally, as a great trade unionist with a simple message of solidarity, solidarity, solidarity. But Larkin had plenty of ideas on other questions, from nationalism in Ireland to gangsters in the United States, which have been largely ignored because he scattered them across the many newspapers he edited.

Larkin’s views on race have not been ignored entirely, and he has been criticized by Dermot Keogh in Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland for publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon in the Irish Worker. Larkin denied he was anti-Semitic and claimed he was attacking Jews who pretended to be Irish the better to exploit their workers and customers. It sounds like a slippery excuse. So was Larkin a racist?

Larkin could make compromises which sound uncomfortable to modern ears. In the 1906 general election, the big issue for anti-Tories was the Conservative government’s introduction of indentured Chinese ‘coolies’ to alleviate the labour shortage in the South African goldmines. Labour feared that a precedent was being set for the importation of cheap labour to Britain, and denounced ‘Chinese slavery’. As an agent for the Labour candidate in Liverpool West Toxteth, Larkin made ‘Chinese slavery’ his “battle-cry”. His theatrical campaign included a mock funeral through the main streets, with a brass band, a glass-sided hearse showing a coffin draped in the Union Jack, and a cortege of several cabs trailed by fifty ‘coolies’ in yellow dye, oakum pigtails, and home-made mandarin jackets. It was the stereotypical European view of ‘John Chinaman’ and chimed with the widely-held racism of the age.

Yet in 1914, when the British National Transport Workers’ Federation was discussing what to do about the employment of Lascars – Asian seafarers – in Britain and British shipping, Larkin dismissed the various racist solutions being offered and said the problem could be resolved “in one hour” by unionising them.

Larkin’s most extensive comment and revealing on the subject was prompted by his time in gaol in the United States. He had gone to New York after the Lockout and worked happily with men and women of all races in the socialist movement. Arrested in the red scare of 1919, he was sentenced to five to ten years hard labour for “criminal anarchy” in May 1920. Countess Markievicz visited him in Comstock prison in 1922, and her response reflected the prevailing racism.

The real tragedy for a man like Jim is the confinement, and the isolation. There he is, a man of great brain and tireless energy, shut up with a crowd of Blacks, Chinese, and criminals of every race, located at the back of beyond…

Released from prison on a free pardon in January 1923, and deported to Ireland in April, he re-started the Irish Worker and included a few recollections of America whenever the mood took him. One memoir of his prison days detailed the various races and his fascination with their different characteristics. At the same time, he did not hold any race to be inherently inferior. Of the African Americans, he wrote:

Then we had over one hundred negroes, ‘bad niggers’ as the average citizen would say. I have lived in close and intimate relationship with these bad niggers. They were much of a muchness with the average man. One thing I found out. The negro is no longer a Slave, mentally, physically, or politically, and America is going to wake up some morning and find out. Some of the most earnest students in the prison school were these same bad niggers, and some of the whitest [ie most honest] men we ever met in this world had black skins just as some of the blackest hearted scoundrels we ever met had white skins. Outwardly the nigger was a wilful, saucy, singing no-give-a-damn sort of cuss. My analysis – close and sympathetic – a man obsessed with sorrow and acquainted with grief and yet realising his position determined to alter it and for the betterment of society [sic]. They were a never ending source of study and delight.


As editor of the Irish Worker he would tell socialists who faulted ‘native’ labour for its lack of militancy that the fault lay in colonial oppression. “The White man when he goes abroad in other people’s countries is always accustomed to giving himself a very grand certificate for this own virtues…Can any Socialist fundamentally believe that one nation is entitled, because of its nationality, to go and dominate over another nation… ”

There is a refreshing honesty to Larkin’s views on race. It jars with contemporary political correctness, but the evidence demonstrates that Big Jim was no racist.


Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker?  has just been published by UCD Press and is available in all good bookshops.