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‘Big Jim’ Larkin brought first appeal before new Irish Supreme Court 100 years ago

Commencement of independent Irish courts in 1924 ‘the moment when the silence of the Gael in the courts of law is broken’

Ireland’s independent courts, established 100 years ago this week, heard many cases down the decades exposing important episodes in Irish life. In the first of an occasional series on such cases, Mary Carolan looks at the involvement of fiery trade union leader “Big Jim” Larkin in the first case to come before the new Irish Supreme Court in 1924 – and his return there just a year later.

It was a bleak year, 1924; the Civil War had just ended, and the fledgling Irish Free State was struggling with an economic depression, mass unemployment, strikes over the slashing of wages and severe food shortages after a disastrous harvest following months of unrelenting rain.

The same year witnessed a seismic event in the development of the new State – the signing into law on April 12th, 1924, of the Courts of Justice Act creating an independent courts system. Just weeks later, a large crowd gathered at Dublin Castle on June 11th, 1924, for the opening ceremony for the new courts, marking, as Ireland’s first chief justice Hugh Kennedy said, “the moment when the silence of the Gael in the courts of law is broken”.

Five days later, the first appeal before the new Irish Supreme Court concerned allegations that Jim Larkin had been responsible for serious irregularities, over years, in the accounts of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

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The claims were advanced by the union’s general president, Thomas Foran, and the executive council after Larkin, having returned to Ireland in 1923 after several years in the US, tried to regain his dominance of the ITGWU.

The court battle, sparked after Larkin and some relatives attempted to take over the union’s offices in June 1923, opened before the master of the rolls, Sir Charles Andrew O’Connor, in Dublin Castle in February 1924.

The plaintiffs alleged years of “chaotic” accounting of union funds by Larkin, maintained he effectively ran the union as his personal fiefdom, and argued that new rules overwhelmingly approved by the membership were valid and that they were trustees of the union, entitled to possession of its headquarters in Liberty Hall and offices at Parnell Square.

Larkin, in a separate claim, argued that the new rules were invalid. Having dismissed his counsel, he represented himself and made serious allegations, including fraud, against the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs rejected most of his claims, but admitted expending union funds for political purposes.

After an at times heated hearing, the judge said he was deciding the case “not from the point of view of the master or the worker, but simply as a lawyer”.

The plaintiffs were the legal trustees and officers of the union, and Larkin’s counter challenge, he ruled, was not justified. There was no dishonesty or secrecy about the past use of union funds for political purposes and its new rules, unanimously adopted by its conference, were intended to ensure compliance with the law in that regard, he held.

In seeking to take forcible possession of the ITGWU premises, Larkin was effectively deciding by force and violence his claims over his legal rights, he said.

“If that is the example to the working class it must result in chaos, and instead of being a society of civilised human beings, we will revert to our original position of savages.”

Larkin appealed, but the Supreme Court was told on the morning of the hearing on June 16th, 1924, that the appeal had been withdrawn the previous evening.

Ireland’s first chief justice, Hugh Kennedy, struck out the matter, with costs to the union side, which it was frustrated in recovering, as Larkin was made bankrupt in late 1924.

An undaunted Larkin was back before the Supreme Court in summer 1925 in another appeal, in entirely separate proceedings, against an award of £500 damages for defamation.

Thomas Johnson TD, then leader of the Irish Labour Party, alleged he was defamed in an article published in the Irish Worker, edited by Larkin, on May 24th, 1924, slamming Johnson over a Dáil speech delivered a few days earlier.

Johnson, after referring to correspondence from demobilised soldiers seeking pensions, urged the government to take warning of the “rising tide of agitation and discontent”. It would have to deal with unemployment in a “much bigger manner” and raise a civil and industrial army to deal with it, he said.

The Irish Worker article, written by Larkin’s father James and published under the headline “Johnson incites to chaos”, claimed Johnson’s speech meant workers thrown out of work due to the “murderous and suicidal” policy of the government must be shot down if they agitated for work. “It is time Labour dealt with this English traitor,” the article urged.

Johnson claimed the article wrongly meant he had incited the murder of workers, was a “traitor” to the labour movement, and had “gone over to capitalism”.

They are the principles of Moscow. I am a member of the Moscow Soviet. There have been men murdered in Belfast by unctuous Christians like yourself

—  Jim Larkin

He sued Larkin and The Gaelic Press, publisher of the Irish Worker, for defamation.

During the trial in April 1925 before Mr Justice Thomas O’Shaughnessy and a jury in the new Irish High Court, The Irish Times reported that Larkin told the jury he did not write the article, but wished he had.

“If I wrote it, there should be more bitterness and invective in it,” the clearly unrepentant editor said, declaring he approved of “every line”, that it was “perfectly true, well-founded and fair” and that he would repeat it even if all the juries of Dublin found against the defendants.

Asked was he above the juries and the law, he said: “I am.”

When Serjeant Hanna KC, for Johnson, said: “These are the principles of Moscow,” The Irish Times reported that Larkin, “still shouting”, said: “Yes, these are the principles of Moscow. I do not preach to unorganised men one day and tomorrow incite to their murder. They are the principles of Moscow. I am a member of the Moscow Soviet. There have been men murdered in Belfast by unctuous Christians like yourself.”

At the close of the hearing in May 1925, the jury found the article amounted to a libel and awarded damages of £500 each against Larkin and The Gaelic Press to Johnson.

Both appealed to the Supreme Court for a new trial, but The Gaelic Press, having agreed a sum of damages with Johnson, withdrew its appeal.

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal in late July 1925 on grounds that two separate actions for damages should not have been joined in the same writ. Larkin, it ruled, was liable for damages but was entitled to a new hearing on the amount, to be assessed on the facts found by the trial jury. Probably because of Larkin’s bankruptcy, there was no new hearing.

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