The Harp Without the Crown – James Larkin


“The snakes that St Patrick had driven from Ireland have ended up in places like the United States where they evolved into policemen and prison guards,”

Quotation from prisoner James Larkin at the exercise yard of Sing Sing Prison in New York State on St. Patrick’s Day 1920.

Hello, this is John Conlan, host of the Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF, with this episode of The Harp Without the Crown, where I will be discussing when James Larkin, Irish Union organizer and founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, visited Butte on several occasions during the years 1915-1917.

James Larkin, “Big Jim,” was a Irish trade unionist and organizer who founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) and its founding was considered to be the birth of the Irish Labor Movement. At that time less than ten percent of Irish workers were unionized. His famous words, “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay,” became the slogan for many union members and organizers. Larkin was also famous for organizing the 1913 Dublin Lockout, which resulted in 100,000 workers going on strike for seven months. The strike eventually helped Dublin workers secure the right to fair employment practices. After the strike, Larkin left Ireland for a lecture tour of America to raise funds for the cause of independence and unionism. While in America he joined the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Larkin spent the better half of nine years in America, three of which were in Sing Sing Prison where he was sentenced to hard labor in a prison boot factory for criminal anarchy and partaking in “communist activities.” He was imprisoned like other radical leftists as part of the Red Scare of the early 1900’s. New York Governor Al Smith eventually pardoned him and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI expedited his deportation to Southampton, England.

Larkin was in Butte on many official and unofficial trips prior to his time spent in Sing Sing Prison. Most of these trips focused on labor organizing but Irish independence was always part of the speeches he gave during the years 1915-1917.

According to newspaper reports, Larkin did not speak highly of Butte union members, the Butte-Irish American community, or local politicians. His September 15,1915 speech at the Butte Auditorium concerned the events in Europe that eventually led to WW1. In his lecture, Larkin discussed his opposition to WW1 and openly supported the German cause, as did many Irish because they were fighting England. In fact, the Butte Robert Emmet Literary Association (RELA), a branch of the radical Clan na Gael, openly advocated for a German victory. RELA meeting minutes refer to Germans as “our friends across the sea” and members predicted a German victory “where a few more of the English navy will see the bottom of the ocean.” The support for Germany among the Irish and Irish Americans was grounded not in support for German ideology but in the belief that a defeat of England would weaken the British Empire and help secure Irish independence. This same anti-English sentiment emerged when many Irish and Irish-Americans supported the Boers fighting the British during the Boer war in South Africa.

Larkin also discussed the unfairness of conscripting Irish men into the British army during WW1 and urged Irish servicemen to “shoot their officers and go home.” His strong ant-conscription message also found support with the Butte Robert Emmet LIterary Association.

The discussion of these topics led to the Montana Standard to label him an “agitator.” This eventually led to him not being allowed to speak again at the Butte Auditorium by Assistant City Clerk Lee. The police were instructed that he be placed under arrest if he continued with his libelous and abusive speeches. Although freedom of speech was recognized by the Butte City Fathers, it was felt that Larkin went beyond fair standards.

Probably the most interesting and controversial speech made by Larkin in Butte was July 9,1916 and the Butte Miner headline,” Larkin Insults Butte” was telling. The Miner reported Larkin in his address, “vilifies the Irish-American community and few good things were said about Irish-Americans and Butte.” Larkin didn’t hold back in his speech, telling the Butte audience “if the people in Ireland knew you they would disown you” and “you ran away from Ireland because you didn’t have the goods to fight.” He also let the audience know that Ireland would be saved by the Irish and not by America, which ran contrary to the thinking of many prominent Irish-American organizations. He criticized the Catholic Church for its anti-socialist positions and said that to be Catholic is to be a stool pigeon and that it was false to think that a Socialist could not be a Catholic.”

He was reported to have insulted members of the audience, such as Herman Kenna. During his speech the audience was asked, “who will stand up for Ireland?” Kenna took the call and stood only to be ignored because he was German. Larkin emphasized he was only speaking to Irishmen and Kenna left the hall. Also, that night Larkin offered to debate any man about the significance of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. When a Butte man responded to the challenge of a debate he was drowned out by Larkin. Later during Larkin’s talk he was confronted by a Butte newspaper editor who threatened that if the prosecuting attorney didn’t take action against Larkin there are men in the city who would. This may not have been an idle threat. Another perceived agitator, Frank Little, was murdered just one year later by men who took matters into their own hands

Unlike previously discussed Irish activists and reformers here on the Harp Without the Crown, it is hard to determine the impact of Larkin’s visit to Butte. His positions about not entering World War One and British conscription of Irish citizens did resonate with more radical groups in Butte such as the RELA. There is no record of him raising significant money for Irish independence but he did give voice to labor in the city. There were events in his personal life and in Ireland that may have led to his behavior and frustration in Butte. It must have been difficult to accept that Home Rule in Ireland, which would have provided limited autonomy for Ireland, had failed three times in the British Parliament and was no longer an option to secure Irish independence. Also, many leaders of the Easter Rising, who had worked closely with Larkin, had either been executed or jailed for their role on the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising.. It was a hard decade for activists like Larkin and these factors certainly weighed heavily on those involved in the Irish

Independence movement. Also, an unsympathetic press and hostile Butte politicians seemed determined to blunt his influence and most likely added to his frustration while in Butte.

While his trips to Butte were controversial, Larkin retains a highly respected place in Irish history. On O’Connell Street in Dublin there stands a prominent statue of Larkin outside the GPO, site of the 1916 Easter Rising where the Irish Proclamation for Freedom was read. Within view of the thousands who walk this busy Dublin Street reads the inscription, “the great appear great because we are on our knees, let us rise!”

This has been John Conlan and thanks for listening to this episode of the Harp without the Crown.