James Larkin in his 1919 police photo file after being booked on a charge of “criminal anarchy”
By Ray O’Hanlon
A hundred years ago this week a strange tale of political intrigue with a potential deadly twist was landing on desks at the U.S. government’s Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the FBI.
A report compiled by a Bureau of Investigation agent in New York pointed to an assassination plot aimed at James Larkin, the prominent Irish labor activist who was campaigning in the United States on behalf of workers’ rights.
The alleged plot might have been lost to the deepest recesses of the federal archives but for an error following a request by a college professor in Ohio for a file on James Joyce.
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The revelation that there was a plot against Larkin, who led workers during the “Great Lockout” in Dublin in 1913 and, in later years, was imprisoned in the U.S. for his pro-labor activities, was first uncovered some years ago by Claire Culleton, an associate professor of Modern British and Irish Literature at Kent State University in Ohio.
Culleton obtained the files during follow-up research that originated with her interest in possible FBI files on Joyce.
The FBI dug up a file on the wrong James.
The Larkin file, 490 pages thick, included a “Special Report” on the alleged plot compiled by a special agent assigned to the then-Bureau of Investigation’s New York office.
Dated Dec. 2, 1919, the report gives details of a plan by four men to assassinate the Liverpool-born Larkin.
The uncovered plot went so far as to have Larkin, who had arrived in the U.S. five years previously, replaced by a look-alike who would return to Ireland and impersonate the labor leader, who was at the time facing serious charges in the U.S. and who, shortly afterward, was consigned to a 5-to-10-year term in New York’s Sing Sing prison.
The reason for the planned assassination, according to the report, was that Larkin was seen by the plotters as being opposed to Sinn Féin – this on the grounds that the party had become too capitalistic. The names of the four alleged plotters were blacked out on the file first obtained by Culleton.
The Echo filed a Freedom of Information Act request to uncover the names of the four. An un-redacted file was duly sent by the FBI. Three names were revealed, along with the partial name of a fourth individual.
And a fifth name, contained in the one-time secret Bureau of Investigation report, indicated a possible link between the alleged plotters and Eamon de Valera, who was in the United States at the time as president of the Irish Republic as declared by Dáil Eireann.
The typed BI file, headed “In Re James [Jim] Larkin Radical,” opens with the federal agent stating that he had received the information from a source that he considered to be “absolutely reliable and conservative.”
While the filed report was dated December 2, the meeting of the four plotters had taken place in New York City a few days earlier, on Nov. 24.
The special agent, whose name at the top of the report was, and remains, partially obscured, began his report thus: “At a meeting held last night in this city [location known to the writer], the decision that Jim Larkin must be assassinated for the good of the Irish Republic was arrived at by the following:”
Four names were then listed, but were all inked out on the file first obtained by Culleton. A notation beside the names, “b7C,” is shorthand for a section of the United States Code that reads: “Could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Following the ECHO’s FOI request, the FBI decided that enough time has passed and that the names of the four alleged plotters could be made public.
They were named in the 1919 report as: Brian McGann, Shaun Kavanaugh and “Pat” Quinlan.” The fourth alleged plotter was only partially named. His surname was Redmond but there was a question mark inserted for his first name. Quinlan was known to be a close ally of activist John Devoy of Clan na Gael.
The special agent subsequently refers in the file to the plotters as the “committee of disposal.” He states that the committee had been informed that Larkin possibly intended to either jump bail, defeat the case against him at the time, or jump bail upon conviction.
Larkin would then “flee” to Ireland in time for the January 1920 elections. In Ireland, Larkin’s presence would “mean that he will do all possible to arouse the Irish Socialist vote against the Sinn Fein, whose policies, according to Larkin, are capitalistic and not in accord with good Socialist doctrines.”
The report indicates that the four plotters intended to take “every means” to prevent Larkin’s return to Ireland. One of the assassination methods discussed at the meeting was “the use of cyanide of potassium.”
The cyanide option was presented to the gathering by Quinlan, according to the agent’s report.
The federal agent concludes that “all of the aforementioned plotters are men of the type who will not hesitate at violence of any sort to attain their ends.”
The report on the plan to murder Jim Larkin also mentioned a fifth individual either close to, or directly involved, with the other four men. The unidentified federal agent states at one point that he had been advised by his source that a man “who is ‘consul general to the Irish republic’ in the City of New York, is charged with the duty of protecting an individual [whose name is at present unknown to informant] who bears a striking resemblance to ‘Jim’ Larkin.”
Previous speculation as to identity of this individual focused on Patrick McCartan, a County Tyrone native who was known to be acting at the time as putative consul general for the nascent republic.
However, the uncensored Bureau report obtained under the FOIA does not name McCartan.
It reads: “I am further advised from the same source that a man named Fawcett, who is ‘consul general to the Irish Republic’ in the City of New York, is charged . . . ”
This Larkin look-alike under Fawcett’s care, described only as a “stoker,” was to be “kept under cover until such time as Larkin is disposed and then he will journey to Ireland and, impersonating Larkin, will take steps to influence the Irish Socialist forces to line up with the Sinn Fein.”
The spelling “Fawcett” is probably an error on the agent’s part. The reference is most likely to Diarmuid L. Fawsitt, a senior figure in Sinn Féin who was appointed at this time by Eamon de Valera as the republic’s consul and trade representative in New York.
If this is the case, there appears to have been a potential link between the alleged plotters and de Valera, although there is no evidence to suggest that Fawcett, or Fawsitt, if he was involved at all, was acting under de Valera’s direct orders.
Indeed, as detailed in Tim Pat Coogan’s 1993 biography of de Valera, Fawsitt and de Valera entered into a dispute around this time over the trusteeship for $3 million collected by de Valera in his U.S. bond drive on behalf of Dáil Eireann.
Diarmuid Fawsitt is today recognized by the Irish government as its first combined diplomatic and trade consul on American soil.
His work in New York was recently celebrated at a gathering of a number of his descendants hosted by today’s Irish Consul General in the city, Ciaran Madden.
Suffice it to say, the focus at the celebration was on Fawsitt’s pioneering role as a diplomat representing the nascent Irish Republic.
Fawsitt, a Cork City native, was especially occupied during his time in New York with trying to establish new and expanded shipping routes on the Atlantic linking Ireland with the United States. In later years, a good deal of his work was concentrated on industrial development in the largely agricultural Irish Free State.
In his December, 1919 report, the federal agent urges his superiors to treat the information he is providing seriously. It had, he wrote, been obtained with “utmost secrecy, inasmuch as the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of this information prevent the use of this information as it stands at present. Disclosure of this information at present would reveal its source and absolutely ruin the chances of our informant to secure further information in connection with this matter.
“May I therefore respectfully suggest that this information be addressed personally to Assistant Director and Chief, Mr. Burke, who is familiar with the services of this informant and the reliability of information secured.
“Informant advises that there is no doubt that the men involved are sincere in their intent to murder Larkin, as they have decided that he must be put out of the way completely to avoid the possibility of his ‘come-back.’ ”
The plot was never carried to its potentially deadly end.
However, Larkin’s safety might have been accidentally aided by his trial, which followed a few months later.
The trial opened on April 5, 1920. Three weeks later, Larkin was found guilty of criminal anarchy and imprisoned.
Larkin was pardoned by Governor Al Smith in January 1923 and shortly afterward returned to Ireland.
He was elected to the Dáil in 1943 and died in 1947. A statue depicting Larkin in his famous arms reaching to the sky gesture now stands in Dublin’s O’Connell Street.
The report on the assassination plan did not result in any arrests, despite the fact that the ambitious and upcoming J. Edgar Hoover was aware of the plot.
“Hoover, not yet director of the FBI but working on the Larkin case as a special assistant to the attorney general within the Department of Justice, did nothing with this information and did nothing to stop the assassination conspiracy, or at least there’s no evidence of this in Larkin’s file,” Claire Culleton told the Echo.
In 1919, the FBI was still known as the Bureau of Investigation. Hoover became director in 1924. The agency became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935.