James Plunkett, author of the classic Strumpet City, often recalled Jim Larkin. In his essay ‘The Mission of Discontent’, he wrote that:
When Jim Larkin came to Dublin in 1908 he was thirty-two years of age – a handsome young man, tall and broad-shouldered, with a commanding presence. His hat was dark and wide-brimmed, and my mother remembers it being rumored in those early days that he never removed it because he was the anti-Christ and was obliged to hide a third eye that was set in the centre of his forehead.
Yet if some denounced him as evil embodied, Larkin would endear himself to the working class of the capital, leading his newly established trade union into strikes of newspaper boys, tram workers and more besides. Another trade unionist remembered that Larkin “crashed upon the public with the devastating roar of a volcano exploding without even a preliminary wisp of smoke.” Undoubtedly, Larkin could be difficult, and even destructive. In a recent biography, historian Emmet O’Connor notes that “Larkin deserves to be remembered as a hero for his titanic achievements between 1907 and 1913….It is unfortunate for his reputation that the story cannot be frozen in time.” O’Connor’s book is entitled Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker? Reading it, it seems evidently clear Larkin could be both.
If 1907 (when Larkin arrived in Belfast as a trade union organiser) to 1913 represent the years of glory for Larkin and ‘Larkinism’, it was the Lockout that captivated James Plunkett, and led to the inspiration for 1969’s Strumpet City, a triumph of a novel later retold as a television series in 1980 by RTE. David Kelly, Bryan Murray, Cyril Cusack and Donal McCann were among those to appear in the series, but the star performance for me was Peter O’Toole playing the role of Jim Larkin. In a particularly powerful scene, Larkin speaks to the workers on the docks of Dublin, encouraging men to desist from work while others are entangled in industrial dispute. The tactic of the sympathetic strike was a pillar of Larkin’s ideology. This scene captures the tension between Dublin workers and the Dublin Metropolitan Police perfectly among other things:
O’Toole delivers his lines with all the passion one imagines a Larkin oration entailed. It’s all about the waving arms, booming voice and nothing but contempt towards the ruling order and the”paid henchmen” of it.
Recently, I stumbled on a copy of Arthur Flynn’s book Echoes. While primarily consisting of 1980s interviews from the author with figures as diverse as Cathal Goulding and Hector Grey, it also includes a great account of the filming of the above scene. Flynn writes:
When I arrived at the location at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning I found a large area of the docks on both sides of the Liffey had been cordoned off by a heavy Garda presence. The area had been transformed by outside broadcasting trucks, caravans, drays and horses, arc lamps and cameras. The three hundred extras, required from Actor’s Equity and clad as cloth capped strikers and old Dublin Metropolitan Police constables lazed about in the sun awaiting their cue to work.
‘There he is!’ called a hushed voice from somewhere.
All eyes turned in the direction of the tall, navy blue suited figure standing alone in the centre of the dusty street.It was Peter O’Toole, grey haired, moustached and looking somewhat haggard.Then pacing with long strides, like a leopard stalking its prey, he glided past the drays and cables, his brow creased in concentration. This was his big scene with a lengthy speech and he silently rehearsed his lines.
…Following a few words with the director, Tony Barry, he descended the steps to take his place in a rowing boat, manned by five members of the Garda Rowing Club, disguised as boatmen. they moved into camera range some twenty yards from the quay.
…O’Toole began his speech in a strong North English accent to the strikers, with a combination of Larkinesque Lawrencesque arm waving gestures. Just to watch this superb actor perform was worth the trip.’Cut’ called the director at the end of the take and the quayside erupted with spontaneous applause as the extras, crew and onlookers acknowledged his flawless performance. O’Toole made no response and merely slumped onto the seat and took a swig from a bottle of Perrier water.
An amusing incident occurred when he began his speech for another take calling ‘Comrades’ and a voice from a boat moored at the opposite quay retorted ‘will you shut up! Everybody, including O’Toole, responded with a volley of uncontrolled laughter.
Today, Strumpet City is rightly recognised as one of the finest television productions in Irish history. It seems that the extras on the quays knew they were watching something very special, and the series and novel remain classics.