By Jim Rees
Among the statues on Dublin’s O’Connell Street is the iconic image of a man with upraised arms, urging the ordinary people of Ireland to raise themselves out of their squalor. Seventy years after his death, his legacy still generates heated argument.
Big Jim Larkin was either a godsend or a gurrier, a charismatic champion or an agitating communist, an orator or just a loud mouth who wrecked anything he started. Take your pick. All these epithets have been applied to him.
He was, by any standards, a remarkable man, whose passion often torpedoed the progress he wished to make.
Larkin was born in Liverpool on 21 January 1874 (some sources say 1876) to impoverished Irish parents, but he spent his first nine years living with his grandparents in Newry. He was back on Merseyside before his tenth birthday, working for half-a-crown (16 cents) a week. He spent a few years at sea before finding work on the Liverpool docks.
It wasn’t long before he was appointed foreman. This should have set him apart from the dockers, but Larkin sided with them when they went on strike. He was fired, but quickly found a new job as a union organiser.