Serendipity Strikes Again

James ‘Jim’ Larkin addressing a crowd in 1913.

8 November 2019

By Greg Denieffe

Greg Denieffe has cooked up a new cocktail for HTBS:

Dublin Cobbler.

A jigger of good Irish history
A gill of artistic licence
A twist of television drama
Six snapshots (various pedigrees)

Muddle the ingredients together and serve in a Collins glass with a pinch of salt.

In my recent piece for HTBS, Crewcial Collectables: Caveat Emptor, I mentioned the 1913 Dublin Lock-out. The opening paragraph of the Wikipedia page about this five-month industrial strike reads:

The Dublin lock-out was a major industrial dispute between approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers which took place in Ireland’s capital city of Dublin. The dispute lasted from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914 and is often viewed as the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history. Central to the dispute was the workers’ right to unionise.

The man behind the industrial action was James Larkin. Liverpool born to Irish parents, he became the leading trade unionist of his time, founding the ITGWU and was one of the founders of the Irish Labour Party.

Five days after the strike began, police baton-charged a crowd of strikers, killing two men and giving rise to the term ‘Bloody Sunday’, the first of four such named days in Irish history.

Larkin could not be any further removed from those involved in the sport of rowing in Dublin at this time and yet he has made it to the pages of the most prestigious rowing history website in all of Mystic.

In 1958, in celebration of their 50th anniversary, Neptune Rowing Club, Dublin, published a celebratory booklet under the editorship of Jim Phelan which had the simple title of Golden Jubilee Brochure. It is a 46-page nugget and Jim Phelan contributed a wonderful piece called ‘Neptune over the Years’, in which can be found this tale of Jim Larkin which took place in 1914, shortly before Larkin left for the USA. Neptune R.C. put all their efforts that season into winning their first Irish Senior VIIIs title, which they did, beating City of Derry Boating Club in the final.  Phelan writes:

In order to save costs – the carriage of the boats from Amien’s [sic] Street station to Coleraine was £13 10s. – the crew rowed down the river to O’Connell Bridge, having sent their clothes in a cab by road.

“BIG JIM”

As they took their boat out of the water en route for the station, the late Jim Larkin was addressing a huge meeting. He spotted the oarsman, and directed the attention of his listeners to them, saying: “that’s right, have good luck. They’ll pull together and that’s what we must do.”

The good luck wish of “Big Jim” was realised, for they won the senior eights title for the first time.

Micheal Johnston, writing about this episode in 1992, credits the source of this to Jack Nolan, cox of the Neptune crew.

As an aside, on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Amiens Street Station was renamed Connolly Station after James Connolly. Connolly and William X. O’Brien are the other two men who along with Larkin are credited with the founding of the Irish Labour Party in 1912. Jim Larkin has to do with a statue on Dublin’s main thoroughfare, close to the GPO.

The inscription on the plinth is an extract in French, Irish and English from one of Larkin’s famous speeches: Les grands ne sont grands que parce que nous sommes à genoux: Levons-nous. – Ní uasal aon uasal ach sinne bheith íseal: Éirímis. – The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise. Picture: stairnaheireann.net

Perhaps, that was Larkin’s only encounter with a rowing crew but as you can see from his photograph and his statue, he had a unique style of oration; he inspired his listeners and huge crowds gathered whenever he spoke, leading to a ban by the authorities on such meetings and another link to rowing. Larkin used disguise to avoid the Dublin Metropolitan Police and found unusual ways to address the workers including from a rowing boat (now would be a good time for that pinch of salt).

In 1969, a historical novel, Strumpet City, by James Plunkett, hit the bookshops to huge acclaim. It is still one of the finest books that I’ve read and in 1980, RTÉ released a seven-part television drama of the book that gripped the county; me included.

Larkin (Peter O’Toole) with members of Garda Síochána Boat Club c.1979 filming a scene for the television adaption of ‘Strumpet City’. From the colour of the oars, it looks like the boat was supplied by Stella Maris Rowing Club, one of two workingmen’s fixed seat rowing clubs based in Ringsend. Stella Maris and the other club, Saint Patrick’s Rowing Club are still in existence and remain the greatest of rivals on the water. Picture: RTÉ Stills Library.

An all-star cast and production team spent two years in bringing the Hugh Leonard adaptation from page to screen. Amongst the big names to feature was Peter O’Toole who played Larkin. In the TV series, one of the ways Larkin found to address dockworkers and encourage them to ‘come out’ in support of the draymen of the city who were on strike for overtime pay, was from the river. O’Toole’s delivery of the short address encouraging scab labour to support the strikers is a masterclass in character acting.

‘Larkin speaks’ – From episode 3 of RTÉ’s Strumpet City (1980)

Arthur Flynn’s book Echoes includes a great account of the filming of the above scene, including a piece of rowing trivia. 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 [sic], 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.

‘Echoes’ by Arthur Flynn (Cilleanna Press, Ireland, 1979), the source of the Garda Síochána Boat Club connection with the drama series ‘Strumpet City’.
Larkin (Peter O’Toole) in full voice and three of the unidentified members of Garda Síochána Boat Club c.1979. Picture: RTÉ Stills Library.

In 2004, RTÉ released a DVD of the series and I upgraded my VHS copy – one of the rare occasions that I was at the forefront of available technology. It is many years since I watched the whole seven episodes and having started this post, I thought I would revisit Chandler’s Court, a tenement in which lived many of the unforgettable characters like Rashers Tierney, Mulhall, Fitz and his wife Mary. In episode one, there is a night fire at Morgan’s Foundry which is brought under control by men who are not in the foundry’s permanent workforce. For their efforts, they are short-paid; 6d an hour instead of the overtime rate of 9d an hour. By episode three, Larkin and Mulhall have agreed that the workers in all the Dublin coal merchants should refuse to deliver to Morgan’s. After checking with each other, the members of The Dublin Coal Merchants’ Association lock out their workers and the strike begins. The man behind the coal merchants banding together to break the union is a Mr Doggett of Doggett & Co. For HTBS Types, Dublin’s and rowing’s more famous Mr Doggett, he of the Coat and Badge, may spring to mind.

Mulhall (Donal McCann), a carter for Doggett & Co., turns his dray around after refusing to deliver coal to Morgan’s Foundry. Picture: RTÉ Stills Library.

Bob Dylan may say that finding a third rowing connection was “a simple twist of fate”, but I prefer American novelist, Elizabeth Berg’s, quote: “Sometimes serendipity is just intention unmasked.” 

The above images are reproduced for non-commercial and educational purposes. However, if you own the rights to any of them and would like them taken down, we will do so immediately.

One comment

  1. Greg,
    A masterpiece of circumlocutory rowing literature. I never fail to admire the ability of HTBS corespondents to weave such interesting tales about the sport we love.

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