Date Released: 21 April 2016
James Fearon was often known as ‘the third James’ in recognition of his role, with Jim Larkin and James Connolly as one of the key founding members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. He was born in Newry the son of a mill worker and, like countless thousands of his generation had to emigrate. He first met Jim Larkin in Glasgow when the latter was trying to organise dockers unloading iron ore, manganese and other minerals. These men survived in a semi-starved exhausted state where alcohol was one of the few releases from their appalling lives and were dubbed the ‘meths drinkers’ on the docks.
Although by now a full time organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), Larkin had taken a job on the docks to recruit members and when the break came, instead of heading off with the rest to have a glass of whisky Larkin saw Fearon go to his coat and take out a bottle of tea. Larkin had discovered a fellow teetotaller, a man who came from near his own parents’ old home in County Armagh and was interested in politics and economics. As Larkin wrote later, ‘We were one in understanding and purpose’.
Fearon became secretary of the Glasgow branch of the NUDL and it was when he brought the remains of a fellow worker back to Newry for burial that he decided to stay and found a branch of the NUDL. He worked hand in hand with Larkin building the union in Ireland and, when Larkin broke with the NUDL to found the Transport Union, Fearon joined him and played a leading role in that union’s crucial early disputes in Belfast, Cork and Dublin.
He would return to Glasgow, a hot bed of socialist activity during the First World War, while Larkin was in America. Fearon was heavily involved in organising the migrant workers living in the city’s Model Lodging Houses, as well as in the trade union movement. He helped found the unemployed movement in Scotland, as well as campaigning for better housing and working conditions.
He returned to Newry after the war and organised workers through the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union. As in Glasgow he combined his trade union work with the fight for the unemployed and homeless in the town. He was involved in the successful campaigns to end the practice of publishing the names of people admitted to the local workhouse and have the old brick works on Cowan Street turned into a public park.
Fearon was a founder member of the Communist Party in Ireland with James Connolly’s son Roddy and supported Jim Larkin in his fight to regain control of the Transport Union in 1923 and 1924. At some stage in 1924 Fearon returned to Glasgow, where he fell ill and died on October 24th. He was buried with the Red Flag on his coffin in a funeral that became one of the largest working class demonstrations of the era in the city.
Young Jim Larkin paid tribute to him as a man ‘who died in the struggle... worn out in the battles of his class’.