On Sunday 13 April 1919 began one of the most spirited, radical actions ever to have taken place in Ireland: the declaration of the Limerick ‘soviet’. Conor Kostick looks at why the soviet began, and what lessons we can take for today.
On Sunday 13 April 1919, began one of the most spirited, radical actions ever to have taken place in Ireland: the declaration of the Limerick Soviet. The soviet took place at a point in time where Britain was determined not to lose any ground to calls for Irish independence (for fear, as Sir Henry Wilson put it in his diary, of consequences in Egypt, India and elsewhere) and it began as a consequence of a decision made at the highest level to make Limerick a Special Military Area. The reason for this decision was the prospect of considerable unrest in Limerick after the death of Robert Byrne, adjutant of 2nd Limerick Battalion of the IRA and delegate of the Post Office Clerks’ Association to Limerick United Trades and Labour Council.
Having been arrested for the presence of a gun and ammunition in his mother’s house, Byrne had been sentenced to a year of hard labour. He led a campaign for political status for the Republican prisoners in Limerick Jail and was shot in the course of a rescue attempt at St Camillus’ Hospital, Sunday 6 April, where he had been recuperating from a hunger strike (and force feeding attempts upon him).
On 9 April 1919, Brigadier General Christopher J. Griffin was appointed the competent military authority for Ireland and military law was declared for Limerick. Following Byrne’s funeral on 10 April, which had as many as 15,000 people following the coffin, Griffin ordered his troops to set up checkpoints on the bridges over the Shannon. In order to pass through the checkpoint, Limerick’s citizens had to apply for a military pass and to get one, an RIC sergeant had to write a letter on your behalf. To rub salt in the wounds, the extra costs of police time were to be recouped from an increase in the rates. The anger of the local population was palpable, but especially in working class communities such as Thomondgate, where workers needing to cross the bridge to Cleeve’s factory or Walkers distillery would be cut off unless they went cap-in-hand to the police.
General strike and takeover of Limerick
After a twelve-hour discussion as to their response to their colleague’s death and Griffin’s initiative, late on Sunday night, Limerick Trades Council took a unanimous decision to call a general strike. Immediately, they created committees to take charge of food, finance, propaganda and vigilance. With a solid response from their members and fellow workers, the supply of water, gas and electricity came under the control of the council, who were quickly referred to as the ‘soviet’ (a term which they happily adopted). Dispensation was given to workers at bacon and condensed milk factories to continue, but those at Cleeves’ creamery and many bakers walked out anyway to join some 14,000 workers on strike.
Policed by pickets with large badges issued by the soviet, Limerick’s population gathered in the streets. The atmosphere was exciting and a powerful sense of solidarity among the participants ensured that during the two weeks of the soviet no looting took place nor a single case arose for the Petty Sessions.
A major test of the authority of the soviet and of its ability to govern was that of food supply. Dublin Castle attempted to foster an atmosphere of panic over the issue when they put out a press release saying that they could not guarantee that Limerick would obtain the necessities of life. In response the strike leaders gained support from the bakers who ensured fresh bread was produced daily, while a limited number of shops were allowed to sell foodstuff, provided they adhered to soviet prices. To make sure it was common knowledge, these food prices were announced in a poster campaign.
With even more daring and confidence in its powers, the soviet expropriated 7,000 tons of grain from a Canadian ship that was in the harbour. Four areas outside of the military cordon were designated for food and supplies delivered there were smuggled in by supporters including clergy and IRA members. With the creamery being closed, there was plenty of fresh milk available. Ironically, rather than starve, the workers of Limerick enjoyed a greater calorie intake under the Soviet than they had experienced since before the Great War.
Inevitably, money became an issue as workers were no longer being paid. Yet solidarity and the offer of fundraising efforts from sympathisers and Irish trade unions meant the soviet had the confidence to undertake an extremely daring and imaginative solution. They issued their own currency, which traders accepted would be redeemed in due course. These now-famous notes went into circulation along with a poster listing the shops that would take the soviet’s currency.
Buoyant, the leaders of the Limerick soviet had reason to believe they could not only defeat the imposition of military rule in Limerick but give a lead to the country generally, for on Wednesday 16 April 1919, defying a missive from London, the Limerick railworkers, who were members of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), decided to seek solidarity action from their railworker colleagues across Ireland and sent delegations to Cork and Inchicore, Dublin. With their fellow railwaymen debating whether to go on strike, the arrival of a telegram from the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Council (ILPTUC) delayed the prospect of escalation. William O’Brien, leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) and a key official in the labour movement, wrote: ‘railwaymen should defer stoppage pending nation action. National Executive specially summoned for tomorrow.’
Labour leaders fail the Limerick Soviet
The assumption of the soviet was that this telegram meant that a general strike across Ireland would be called in the near future, thus the action of the railworkers would be premature. Carpenter John Cronin, Chairman of the soviet told an American journalist, ‘the national executive council of the ILPTUC will change its headquarters from Dublin to Limerick. Then if military rule isn’t abrogated, a general strike of the entire country will be called.’
Nowadays, rank and file trade unionists are likely to be rather more sceptical of their senior officials and there is a certain naïve assumption in Cronin’s declaration that O’Brien and his colleagues at the head of the ILPTUC were in earnest about escalating the strike in Limerick to a national one. Cronin’s view is understandable, for in 1919 the consolidation of a trade union bureaucracy with a conservative ethos was only just taking place. Many of the officials of the trade unions at that time were revolutionary syndicalists, close supporters of James Larkin and James Connolly. And it is really only with the benefit of hindsight that William O’Brien, a close friend and comrade of Connolly’s can be seen otherwise.
O’Brien was the architect of the ITGWU’s turn to consolidation rather than revolution. In 1918, in a programmatic address to his fellow officials, O’Brien had outlined a perspective that was all about strengthening the assets of the unions and finding a place for Labour and the trade unions within an independent Ireland. He therefore very much looked to Sinn Féin for guidance on what they would find acceptable, rather than attempt to emulate the Russian Revolution and bring about a revolution led by workers. Although, in the light of the Limerick Soviet, O’Brien’s close colleague in this approach, Tom Johnson, was described as the ‘coming Lenin’ of the Irish revolution, the reality was they were trying to avoid a Russian scenario.
Given that the First Dáil government (with some equivocation), had decided not to endorse a national escalation in support of Limerick, O’Brien and Johnson were placed in a position of having to defuse the strike. Firstly, they delayed matters as long as they possible could, hoping some of the heat of the crisis would dissipate. Then, when most of the ILPTUC leadership had finally gathered in Limerick (but not O’Brien himself), their grand plan was announced. Instead of a general strike, it was the removal of the citizens of Limerick that was announced. People could be housed with trade unionists elsewhere in the country and thus not have to apply for the hated passes.
Such a feeble response to the potential of the soviet swept over the city like a heavy shower, discouraging everyone and the working class in particular, whose leaders had offered such an embarrassing strategy for the way forward. As the news of the Labour position spread, a middle class revival took place. Up until this point, the soviet had complete authority over the town. Now there were rivals. In particular, on Thursday 24 April, the Mayor of Limerick and Bishop Dr Hallinan entered talks with General Griffin and issued a letter the following day to insist that the strike be ended.
Given they could see no method of taking the strike forward, the soviet leaders accepted that they had to manage a return to work and announced that anyone who did not need to apply for a pass should no longer participate in the strike. Some workers were furious at this and tearing up the posters that announced this retreat, declared that they would set up a new soviet. This alternative, however, did not materialise, largely because unlike the Russian soviets, the Limerick one was rooted in the slow-changing trades council system of representation rather than a delegate system from workplaces that was accountable to its electorate at daily meetings.
The Limerick soviet petered out with some concessions made by the military (they accepted employers letters rather than recommendations by the police, for example) but its potential as a model for action against British rule more widely was wasted by the determination of an emerging Labour elite to moderate the action. Republicans were quick to capitalise on the retreat and having been sympathetic but marginal during the height of the Soviet, made the point, as one local paper put it, the people had been let down ‘by the nincompoops who call themselves the “Leaders of Labour”’.
Lessons of the Limerick Soviet
What are the lessons of the Limerick soviet for today? At a deep level it is a reminder that there can be other ways of running the world than via an economic free market backed up by a state (whether democratic or dictatorial) which favours the owners of big business. For a brief while in Limerick, decisions were made not with profit in mind but with solidarity, community and desire to provide a common resistance against injustice. There was imagination and daring on display, not least in the seizure of grain to make sure everyone had food and in the issuing of their own money. This is not to idealise the soviet. One obvious failing was that it was an all male committee that led the strike. Another was that the input of the rank and file seems to have been limited to attendance at rallies, rather than the soviet being open to new members elected by workplace and community (which would have also resulted in women taking leadership roles).
Another important lesson is that when radical and powerful working class actions rock authority, they carry with them large swathes of the middle class. At its height, the lower-middle class, in the form of the IRA and lower clergy, gave strong support to the soviet and a reflection of even wider circles of society respecting the soviet is the fact that the Bishop of Killaloe, Reverend Michael Fogerty, told a journalist at the time, ‘if the people desired a communistic government, there is no essential opposition to the Catholic Church. In the past the Church in Ireland thrived under common ownership.’
Thirdly, when such radical strikes occur again, they will be met by labour and trade union leaders with a left reputation but whose actual goals are to moderate, contain and ultimately end the action before it can realise it’s potential. I say this not only from a study of the Limerick Soviet but from the initial phases of similar events throughout the twentieth century.
Here, there is no escaping the need for those who share a revolutionary approach to workers struggles to be organised long in advance of the critical turning points of seismic social struggles. Looking back at 1919, for example, we can see several influential figures who potentially could have helped the Limerick Soviet escalate and force a humiliating retreat on General Griffin.
The strikers could have counted on James Larkin for this kind of support. Unfortunately, he was in Sing Sing jail in the US. And of course James Connolly was dead. The Limerick Soviet, four general strikes and a rash of other soviets in the 1919 – 22 period all serve to underscore how tragic was the loss of Connolly to the working class movement. Countess Markievicz, speaking in Bray at the time of the Soviet, tried her best to carry the banner for Connolly:
‘she knew Russia well and the people who got control there were the rank and file… They were building up a workers’ republic. That flame was sweeping Westward. If it fired France, it must fire England and if it fire England, Ireland was free. The sort of republic they want to build all over the world was the workers’ republic for which James Connolly died.’
There were many other, less well known revolutionary socialists in Ireland at the time, figures like John Dowling, friend of Connolly’s and ITGWU organiser. Dowling would go on to help organize dozens of soviets in Munster alongside his fellow syndicalist Séan McGrath and the radical Jack Hedley, a sailor who had jumped ship in Belfast during the war and stayed in Ireland to help organise workers. Insofar as the socialists of Ireland were united together in a party at the time of the Limerick Soviet it was through the Socialist Party of Ireland, which unfortunately for the revolutionaries, was dominated by William O’Brien. In any case, a left-wing party with a focus on elections was not the type of organisation needed, no matter how radical-sounding its policies.
The main lesson of the Limerick Soviet is for everyone sympathetic to its achievements and disappointed to read that it was not the success it could have been to link up today in preparation for similar events in the future.