Larkin, Delia (1878–1949), trade unionist, was born 28 February 1878 at Fermie Street in the Toxteth district of Liverpool, the youngest of three sons and three daughters of James Larkin, a fitter with an engineering firm, and Mary Ann Larkin (née McNulty), a native of Co. Down. Delia was educated at the Chipping Street elementary school, before the premature death of her father and family poverty forced her to begin working in a hospital. From her youngest days she had a deep interest in literature and socialist politics, no doubt also influenced by the activities of her brother, the legendary trade unionist James Larkin (qv). In 1907 she moved to Rostrevor, Co. Down, close to the original Larkin homestead, and for a time managed a hotel in the district before moving in 1911 to live with her brother James and his family at Auburn Street in Dublin city. She may have worked for a short time as a teacher before becoming actively involved in the trade union movement.
Under the auspices of the ITGWU, she became general secretary of the Irish Women's Workers Union (IWWU) in September 1911, the first and most durable women's trade union in the country. In launching the union, Delia was scathing of the poor pay and conditions female employees had to endure, insisting they were ‘weary of being white slaves who pass their lives away toiling to fill the pockets of unscrupulous employers’ (Jones, 5). She also became editor of the women workers' column in the Irish Worker, editing over 120 columns (1911–14). The columns contained a variety of advice for women in and out of the home, dealing with such issues as cooking, dress, and the Irish language revival movement; they also advocated female suffrage and urged women not to undersell their labour.
The task of the industrial organisation of women was difficult and membership of the IWWU never grew to more than a few hundred, with most of the membership based in Dublin, though small branches were also formed in Belfast, Dundalk, Wexford, and Cork. With an office provided by the ITGWU at Liberty Hall in Dublin, Delia made herself available seven days a week and championed the cause of domestic and factory workers, waitresses, printers, and dress makers. In 1912 she represented the IWWU at the annual conference of the ITUC. As well as representing female workers on Ireland's first trade board, she spoke on behalf of the union at a rally in Dublin in 1912 demanding the inclusion of women's suffrage in the proposed home rule bill. In the same year the union won two small but significant strikes at Keogh's sack makers and the Pembroke Laundry in Dublin. By 1913 the union had recruited many of the women employed in the Jacob's biscuit factory in Dublin, who were subsequently locked out by their employers. Alongside Countess Markievicz (qv), Delia was in charge of welfare operations in Liberty Hall during the 1913 Dublin lock-out and was involved in attempts to arrange foster homes in Liverpool for children of striking workers, efforts which were vigorously opposed by the catholic church. In the same year she also organised a six-week tour in England of the Irish Workers Dramatic Company which she had founded along with the Irish Workers Choir, believing the role of a trade union was not just to protect workers' rights, but to foster the general development and provide for the social needs of its members.
After her brother James's imprisonment in October 1913 she increasingly became the public face of Liberty Hall and frequently spoke at rallies. At the end of the lock-out in January 1914, 400 members of the IWWU were not reinstated. The union embarked on a tour to Liverpool, Oxford, and London to raise funds for their relief, but the response was disappointing; it was also unsuccessful in trying to establish a shirt manufacturing co-operative to employ victimised workers. Festering tensions at Liberty Hall were exacerbated by Delia's increased militancy, the exile of her brother James, and the IWWU's rent-free occupation of the largest room in the building. As well as clashing with James Connolly (qv), she also had to deal with an unsuccessful court case initiated by a former clerk of the IWWU who claimed she had not been paid.
Attempting to establish a political base, Delia ran as a Labour party candidate for the North Dock Ward in the Poor Law elections of 1915 but was heavily defeated. Although she continued to command loyal support from the depleted ranks of women workers in Dublin, her increased isolation from the leadership of the Dublin trade union movement prompted her to leave Dublin in the summer of 1915 to work as a nurse in London. She returned to Dublin in August 1918, and began working in Liberty Hall in the insurance section under the sponsorship of Larkin loyalist P. T. Daly (qv), secretary of the ITUC. Her application to rejoin the IWWU, now being run by Louie Bennett (qv), was refused, despite protests on her behalf to the Dublin Trades Council; she was also refused admittance to the Irish Clerical Workers' Union. In July 1919 she began editing the Red Hand, a weekly newspaper established by Larkinites in opposition to the official organ of the ITGWU, the Irish Worker, though the title was short-lived owing to her brother's vociferous opposition to the project. Much of her time in the next few years was taken up with campaigning for the release of her brothers, Peter, imprisoned in Australia, and James, incarcerated in America, though she received little support from the ITGWU.
By the mid 1920s she had effectively retired from public life, although young socialists such as Sean O'Casey (qv) and Liam O'Flaherty (qv) were regular visitors to her house in Gardiner Place, Dublin. She retained her interest in theatre, running a drama society for members of the WUI, as well as writing occasional pieces for the relaunched Irish Worker in the 1930s. She moved to Wellington Road in Ballsbridge, Dublin, where her brother James, whom she revered, spent the last years of his life. In her latter years ill health imposed a quiet lifestyle which she said was ‘quite against my inclination’ (Nevin, 437). She died at her home 26 October 1949 and was buried at Glasnevin cemetery. In February 1921 she married Patrick Colgan, a former member of the Irish Citizen Army and executive member of the WUI.