British spies report on Jim Larkin’s speeches in New York, 1914.

By the nineteenth century the British government was well aware of the importance of intelligence gathering in the effective administration of its territories. As part of its security apparatus Britain maintained a vast spy network which regularly reported on the activities of dissidents throughout the Empire and the rest of the world. Intelligence gathering was especially effective in Ireland, where Dublin Castle acted as a central hub for a network that reached into every urban and rural corner of Ireland through networks of local police and their informers. This enabled the British to smother any rebellious embers before they caught fire, however at the opening of the twentieth century Ireland remained a restive section of the union. Of particular concern to the Dublin Metropolitan Police was a certain Jim Larkin, a labour leader and one of the primary actors in the 1913 Lockout.

The extent of this unrest and Larkin’s oratorical skills made him a dangerous man in the eyes of the police and one who should be watched closely. In the wake of the violent suppression of the striking workers in 1913 the major trade union in Ireland decided to follow the lead of the Ulster Unionists and create an armed wing, the Irish Citizen Army [ICA]. Under Larkin’s leadership the ICA increased in numbers into the hundreds. On 24 October 1914 Larkin left James Connolly in charge of the ICA and travelled to the United States to collect funds and to ship arms back to the growing organisation in preparation for the next round of confrontation between workers and big business in Ireland. The following is a spy report sent to Dublin Castle on Larkin’s activities after he arrived to New York.

33B Reports:- New York, Monday, November 16th 1914.

Having learned through an informant that James Larkin, the Irish labor leader, had arrived in this country on November 3rd, Lexington Avenue, and 85th Street, New York, Sunday night, November 15th, at 8:00 P.M. I sent two operatives to this meeting who report that Larkin began his address with an [sic] eulogy of the Manchester Martyrs and a short description of his career in the City of Manchester, England.

He speaks with the accent of a South Lancastrian and tries to give the impression that he was a native of Dublin as he speaks in the highest terms of the Dublin Irishmen, and contemptuously of John Redmond, Sir Edward Carson and their followers. Lord Aberdeen was ridiculed and referred to as a leprous representative of the British Premier, Mr. Asquith, and considered him the real power behind Sir Edward Carson. Also accused Asquith of keeping the Ulsterites fully informed of the intentions of the British Government and allowing the Ulster Volunteers to arm, while using the British Army to prevent the Nationalists from arming. He accused Asquith, Carson and Redmond of secretly working together to prevent the Nationalists getting justice while passing a Home Rule Bill that was lacking in every essential condition in order to placate the Nationalist. That the Nationalists would fight the British Government before submitting to conscription, and expressed the hope that the Germans would defeat the British in the present war. This statement was loudly applauded but no [sic] unanimously.

Larkin appealed for funds for the use of the Society in Ireland and left the Hall. There were about 400 people in the Hall who heard this address. The audience was one of respectibility. The meeting was under the auspices of the Clan-na-gael.

If sending two ‘operatives’ to attend a Larkin speech seems excessive it indicates the strong British presence in New York. Given the tense situation in Ireland, the strength of Clan na Gael in the United States and of course, that it was wartime, this overreaction makes more sense. It is somewhat surprising that the agent reported ‘the audience was one of respectibility’. Whatever prejudices the British operatives might have had against the crowd does no come through in their reports. This contrasts with private detective reports from agencies such as the Pinkertons, where some agents sneered at their subjects in the reports to their employers, possibly trying to endear themselves to their employer, possibly demonstrating primitive hate, but certainly revealing an innate lack of empathy with the people they spied on.

Also interesting to note was that the crowd did not unanimously applaud the possibility of a German victory. The average attendee at these rallies have often been perceived as a singular voice in support, however here is a good example that the audience at such talks held a diverse set of opinions and did not blindly agree with every pronouncement from the speaker. There is also the possibility that some in the crowd remained cautious about endorsing someone like Larkin and his message. While they would attend and listen to what he had to say (after all, Larkin was a celebrity after the widely reported Lockout) they may have worried that the meetings was being closely watched by the authorities, and if so, they would have been right.

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About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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