Every inch of her heart

Angi Dixon continues her series on the women who have made an outstanding contribution to British and Irish life with a profile of Delia Larkin. A founder of the women’s trade union movement in Ireland, Larkin was a tireless campaigner for women’s suffrage and for equal rights with men.

DELIA LARKIN 1878 - 1949

Delia Larkin came into this world on February 27, 1878. She was born into an Irish working-class family in the Toxeth Park area of Liverpool. Her mother Mary Ann McNulty was widowed in 1887 when Delia’s father James Larkin died from tuberculosis.

Delia assumed her equal position in the house and left her education to aid her family in the ever-increasing economic and social decline that was about to grip the Irish nation. Things were going to get tough, but Delia was ready and prepared to work conscientiously and diligently alongside her brothers and other male counterparts. This hardy attitude would prove to be her driving force when facing future hardships.

Delia developed a deep interest in and understanding of social politics. As she grew older this interest would turn into a burning passion that would fuel and re-educate many minds. Her passion was to be the driving force in the re-structuring of the corrupt morals of the government and all the influential social classes, who were responsible for exploiting Ireland’s workers.

It was her dream to promote women so that they might be held in the same regard as their male counterparts. She wished to obtain the same recognition that her brother James Larkin was receiving as a trade union activist. She was determined that women would be listened to and that their voices would be considered just as important as those of men. Delia Larkin first became involved with the Irish trade union movement in the summer of 1911. It was decided to start a trade union for women writing the ITGWU (the union formed by James Larkin) called the Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU).

The union first advertised for members in the Irish Worker, the weekly paper for the ITGWU, on the August 12, 1911 and was launched a month later on September 5.

Delia Larkin wrote a column in the Irish Worker summing up the aspirations of the new union she was about to revolutionise. Her column dealt with many different issues, such as housing, social conditions and votes for women. The aim of the union was to provide women with a union that widened opportunities and broke down barriers to allow different backgrounds to mix on equal terms. The union programme included discussion groups and weekly socials, annual outings, yearly concerts and New Year dances. Within the first six months the union had collated enough financial relief to help support the families of victimisation, which had occurred as a result of wages loss and other work related issues.

In 1912 the union branched out independently from the ITGWU to the ITCU with its secured 1,000 members. Delia Larkin represented her union at three annual conferences of the ITUC from 1912 to 1914. She also represented women on Ireland’s first tradesboard, the joint industrial council formed to regulate pay within the poorly-paid manufacturing sectors in which the women worked.

Alongside this, the multi-skilled and multi-talented Delia Larkin personally engineered various plays, and went on to form The Irish Workers Dramatic class (all trained personally by Delia Larkin herself). regularly travelling and earning much-needed funds for the party, the group inspired quite a following.

Delia Larkin also represented the union members within the suffrage movement and was personally asked to attend the celebrations of Sarah Harrison, Dublin's first woman councillor in February, 1912.
Delia also went on to represent the union at the mass rally in Dublin to demand women’s suffrage be included in the Home Rule Bill. In 1913 the union membership fell to around 600 or 700, which led Delia LArkin to organise a tour for the theatre group of Britain to raise funds. As a result of this fundraising effort, Delia opened a recreational facility for members of Liberty Hall and their families. But unfortunately the festive mood would soon turn sour.

Within weeks the Dublin tram strike had taken place and was spreading throughout the city. The lock-out brought complete anarchy and disarray to the city. Thousands were out of work, and thousands were going hungry. The dispute began on September 1 with the wearing of the IWWU badge. Within a week 310 women were locked out of their work places.

When James Larkin went to England in order to rally support for the workers, Delia took sole charge at Liberty Hall. She ran the entire programme to feed the union members and their dependents throughout the lock out. Consistently staying by the people’s side was paramount to Delia. She provided daily breakfasts for 3,000 children, lunches for working mothers and distribution of necessaries such as clothing.

The lock-out continued until February, 1914, although this would prove to be a temporary relief from the pressure of Delia’s commitments. Some 400 of her union members were not reinstated after the lockout, and in March she went on a tour with the dramatic group that was formed by the locked out workers.

In June of the same year Delia stood for the Poor Law elections in Dublin, the only woman of 13 candidates nominated by the trade unions. She fell a few hundred votes short of being elected as a Poor Law Guardian.

In September of that year Delia was ordered to find other suitable premises for the women’s union after an argument over payment for Liberty Hall. The Chief Secretary for Ireland Augustine Birrell met suffrage women to discuss the newly-appointed ladies’ advisory committee to assist with relief work. The women proposed Delia Larkin as a member. She was rejected, and this was viewed as a deliberate insult to Dublin’s only women’s union.

In 1915, James Larkin left for America - James Connolly had taken charge at Liberty Hall as acting secretary of ITGWU. At the same time Connolly and Delia Larkin were reported to have engaged in verbal conflict on a number of occasions. Apparently, they disagreed on how to run the union.

Delia returned to her native Liverpool for a short while,working in various positions in the nursing sector. However, upon hearing about the compulsory drafting of Irish men into the British Army, she immediately moved back to Dublin to rally support for the anti-conscription lobby.

After the war, Delia continued fighting, lending her support to various post war independence rallies. She began writing for the opposition newspaper, Red Hand, much to James Larkin’s dismay. He stated that her activities would create disunity within the union.

So Delia ceased to write for the paper and shifted her efforts to supporting the Sydney 12, and even started working back at Liberty Hall in the insurance section.

Delia also went on to marry Pat Colgan, an ex-member of the Irish Citizen Army, at the age of 43.
In her later years Delia concentrated on her theatrical activities. It was in her and Pat Colgan’s flat in Dublin that James Larkin would also live out his last years.

In Delia’s final years she suffered from ill health and was quoted as saying: “ I was forced into this quiet life against all inclinations.”

Delia Larkin died at her home in Dublin on the October 26, 1949. She was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

Finally, the moving spirit was she was infamously dubbed through her campaigning years was reunited with her former friends and colleagues who had contributed every inch of their heart and soul for Ireland.

Courtesy of the Irish Post
January 2003