Larkin testified that he himself never took part in the actual sabotage campaign but, rather, confined himself to the organising of strikes to secure both higher pay and shorter hours for workmen and to prevent the shipment of munitions to the Allies.
Larkin was born on 21 January 1876 the second eldest son of Irish emigrants, James Larkin and Mary Ann McNulty, both from County Armagh. The impoverished Larkin family lived in the slums of Liverpool during the early years of his life. From the age of seven, he attended school in the mornings and worked in the afternoons to supplement the family income, a Common arrangement in working-class families at the time. At the age of fourteen, after the death of his father, he was apprenticed to the firm his father had worked for, but was dismissed after two years. He was unemployed for a time and then worked as a Sailor and docker. By 1903, he was a dock foreman, and on 8 September of that year, he married Elizabeth Brown.
From 1893, Larkin developed an interest in socialism and became a member of the Independent Labour Party. In 1905, he was one of the few foremen to take part in a strike on the Liverpool docks. He was elected to the strike committee, and although he lost his foreman's job as a result, his performance so impressed the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) that he was appointed a temporary organiser. He later gained a permanent position with the union, which, in 1906, sent him to Scotland, where he successfully organised workers in Preston and Glasgow. Larkin campaigned against Chinese immigration, presenting it as a threat that would undercut workers, leading processions in 1906 in Liverpool with fifty dockers dressed as 'Chinamen', wearing faux-'pigtails' and wearing a powder to provide a 'yellow countenance'.
The slogan, first used on the 18th century French radical paper Révolutions de Paris, also appeared on the masthead of the Workers' Republic, founded by James Connolly in Dublin in August 1898. Originally the organ of the Irish Socialist Republican Party, this periodical later became the official organ of the Communist Party of Ireland, which was founded in 1921. The original slogan is usually attributed to Camille Desmoulins (1760–1794), the French revolutionary; but it appears, only slightly modified, in an essay written by Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563) and first published in 1576.
In January 1907, Larkin undertook his first task on behalf of the trade union movement in Ireland, when he arrived in Belfast to organise the city's dock workers for the NUDL. He succeeded in unionising the workforce, and as employers refused to meet the wage demands, he called the dockers out on strike in June. Carters and coal men soon joined in, the latter settling their dispute after a month. Larkin succeeded in uniting Protestant and Catholic workers and even persuaded the local Royal Irish Constabulary to strike at one point, but the strike ended by November without having achieved significant success. Tensions regarding leadership arose between Larkin and NUDL general secretary James Sexton. The latter's handling of negotiations and agreement to a disastrous settlement for the last of the strikers resulted in a lasting rift between Sexton and Larkin.
After his expulsion from the NUDL, Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) at the end of December 1908. The organisation exists today as the Services Industrial Professional & Technical Union (SIPTU). It quickly gained the affiliation of the NUDL branches in Dublin, Cork, Dundalk, Waterford and Sligo. The Derry and Drogheda NUDL branches stayed with the British union, and Belfast split along sectarian lines. Early in the new year, 1909, Larkin moved to Dublin, which became the main base of the ITGWU and the focus of all his Future union activity in Ireland.
In June 1911, Larkin established a newspaper, The Irish Worker and People's Advocate, as a pro-labour alternative to the capitalist-owned press. This organ was characterised by a campaigning approach and the denunciation of unfair employers and of Larkin's political enemies. Its columns also included pieces by intellectuals. The paper was produced until its suppression by the authorities in 1915. Afterwards, the Worker metamorphosed into the new Ireland Echo.
In partnership with James Connolly, Larkin helped form the Irish Labour Party in 1912. Later that year, he was elected to Dublin Corporation. He did not hold his seat long, as a month later he was removed because he had a Criminal record from his conviction in 1910.
James Larkin was memorialised by the New York Irish rock band Black 47, in their song The Day They Set Jim Larkin Free, and Donagh MacDonagh's The Ballad of James Larkin was recorded by Christy Moore and also the Dubliners. Paddy Reilly sings a song simply entitled Jim Larkin that describes the lot of the worker and their appreciation of the changes made by Larkin and Connolly. The song The Lockout by Joe O' Sullivan describes Larkin's organisation of workers which led to the Dublin Lockout of 1913.
The lock-out eventually concluded in early 1914 when calls by Connolly and Larkin for a sympathetic strike in Britain were rejected by the British TUC. Larkin's attacks on the TUC leadership for this stance also led to the cessation of financial aid to the ITGWU, which in any case was not affiliated to the TUC.
Some months after the lockout ended, Larkin left for the United States. He intended to recuperate from the strain of the lockout and raise funds for the union. His decision to leave dismayed many union Activists. Once there he became a member of the Socialist Party of America, and was involved in the Industrial Workers of the World union (the Wobblies). He became an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet Union and was expelled from the Socialist Party of America in 1919 along with numerous other sympathisers of the Bolsheviks during the Red Scare of that year.
Larkin's speeches in support of the Soviet Union, his association with founding members of the American Communist Party, and his radical publications made him a target of the "First Red Scare" that was sweeping the US; he was jailed in 1920 for 'criminal anarchy' and was sentenced to five to ten years in Sing Sing prison. In 1923, he was pardoned and later deported by Al Smith, Governor of New York.
In September 1923, Larkin formed the Irish Worker League (IWL), which was soon afterwards recognised by the Comintern as the Irish section of the world communist movement. In 1924 Larkin attended the Comintern congress in Moscow and was elected to its executive committee. On his return, Larkin announced that he had addressed some 20 million Russians, having been elected as one of "the 25 men to govern the world" and boasted that he had been appointed a Chief of Battalion of the Red Army, whose 2.5 million men had "pledged to come to the assistance of Irish workers". However, the League was not organised as a political party, never held a general congress and never succeeded in being politically effective. Its most prominent activity in its first year was to raise funds for imprisoned members of the Anti-Treaty IRA.
During Larkin's absence at the 1924 Comintern congress (and apparently against his instructions), his brother Peter took his supporters out of the ITGWU, forming the Workers' Union of Ireland (WUI). The new union quickly grew, gaining the allegiance of about two-thirds of the Dublin membership of the ITGWU and of a smaller number of rural members. It affiliated to the pro-Soviet Red International of Labour Unions.
In January 1925, the Comintern sent Communist Party of Great Britain Activist Bob Stewart to Ireland to establish a communist party in co-operation with Larkin. A formal founding conference of the Irish Worker League, which was to take up this role, was set for May 1925. A fiasco ensued when the organisers discovered at the last minute that Larkin did not intend to attend. Feeling that the proposed party could not succeed without him, they called the conference off as it was due to start in a packed room in the Mansion House, Dublin.
At the September 1927 general election, Larkin ran (a huge surprise for all) in Dublin North and was elected. However, as a result of a libel award against him won by william O'Brien, which he had refused to pay, he was an undischarged bankrupt and could not take up his seat.
Larkin was unsuccessful in his attempts in the following years to gain a position as a commercial agent in Ireland for the Soviet Union, which may have contributed to his disenchantment with Stalinism. The Soviets, for their part, were increasingly impatient with what they saw as his ineffective leadership. From the early 1930s Larkin drew away from the Soviet Union. While in the 1932 general election, he stood, without success, as a communist and in 1933 and subsequently, he ran as "Independent Labour". In 1934, he gave important evidence on the 1916 Black Tom explosion to John J. McCloy, allowing a case for damages against Germany to be reopened; presumably because of Germany's new Nazi government.
During this period he also engaged in a rapprochement with the Catholic Church. In 1936, he regained his seat on Dublin Corporation. He then regained his Dáil seat at the 1937 general election but lost it again the following year. In that period, the Workers' Union of Ireland also entered the mainstream of the trade union movement, being admitted to the Dublin Trades Council in 1936, but the Irish Trade Union Congress would not accept its membership application until 1945.
Larkin was reported as having helped to disrupt Allied munitions shipments in New York City during World War I. In 1937, he voluntarily assisted US lawyers investigating the Black Tom explosion by providing an affidavit from his home in Dublin. According to British Army Intelligence officer, Henry Landau:
In 1941, a new trade union bill was published by the Government. Inspired by an internal trade union restructuring proposal by william O'Brien, it was viewed as a threat by the smaller general unions and the Irish branches of British unions (known as the 'amalgamated unions'). Larkin and the WUI played a leading role in the unsuccessful campaign against the bill. After its passage into law, he and his supporters successfully applied for admission to the Labour Party, where they were now regarded with more sympathy by many members. O'Brien in response disaffiliated the ITGWU from the party, forming the rival National Labour Party and denouncing what he claimed was communist influence in Labour. Larkin later served as a Labour Party deputy in Dáil Éireann from 1943 to 1944.
James Larkin died in his sleep, on 30 January 1947 in the Meath Hospital. Fr Aloysius Travers, OFM (who had administered last rites to James Connolly in 1916) also administered extreme unction to Larkin. His funeral mass was celebrated by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who had visited him in hospital before he died, and thousands lined the streets of the city as the hearse passed through on the way to Glasnevin Cemetery.