Numerous Irish politicians, writers, and other public figures espoused the rights of their homeland during late 19th century and early 20th century visits the United States. They included Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt in the 1880s; William Butler Yeats in 1903/4, 1911, 1914, and 1920; and Éamon de Valera’s 18-month tour from June 1919 to December 1920.
Leftist labor activist James Larkin is also among this cohort, but his American experience was more troubled than the others. He arrived shortly after the 1913/14 Dublin strikes and became involved with the Socialist Party of America, Industrial Workers of the World, and eventually the Communist Party of America. His association with the latter group in the aftermath of World War I, “with America gripped by major strikes and a ‘red scare’ ” resulted in his November 1919 arrest for “criminal anarchy.”1
Larkin was convicted in April 1920 and sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. He was sent to New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a notorious maximum security prison opened nearly 100 years earlier. Advocacy for Larkin’s release and return to Ireland gathered pace by August 1920:
- The Irish Labor Party and Trade Union Congress meeting in Cork city passed a resolution calling Larkin’s imprisonment a “gross outrage of every principal of justice, a violation of individual liberty, and the right of freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, a brutal and criminal act of class hatred, inspired by ruthless and unscrupulous capitalism, an attack upon the rights of the working class as much in Ireland as in America.”2
- The Associated Press reported that several of the town and county councils elected in June “have taken up the matter and are busy passing resolutions about it.”3
- In America, the James Larkin Defense Fund raised money and circulated an appeal on his behalf that was published in friendly U.S. newspapers.4 It said in part:
We feel that he is the victim of as foul a conspiracy as was ever hatched against a member of our race by the hidden hand of the British government. It is your fight as well as ours. Today it is Larkin who lies in jail on a trumped up charge of ‘criminal anarchy.’ Tomorrow it may be de Valera. Irishmen and Irishwomen and lovers of human freedom, your attitude toward Larkin in this critical hour will be the acid test of your professed devotion to the Gael. Larkin today is in a felon’s cell, but remember in the Irish history it was no disgrace to be a felon. Larkin is in jail because he was fighting your battle.
Actor Charles Chaplin and Irish activist Constance Georgine (Countess) Markievicz, who had participated in the 1913 lockout, visited Larkin in prison. It took three years, however, until he was pardoned and deported by newly-elected New York Gov. Al Smith, who later became the first Irish Catholic presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party. Larkin returned to Ireland in April 1923 and renewed his trade union activities.
Larkin also was elected three times to Dáil Éireann. When he died in 1947, Irish newspapers dismissed his U.S. imprisonment as simply “because of his pacifist and labor activities.”5. His burial at Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery drew much attention, and he has been immortalized in songs, poems, and a 1979 statue on O’Connell Street.
No disgrace for the former felon.