The Limerick Soviet | April 1919 – Episode 10

The Limerick Soviet | April 1919 – Episode 10

Dia daoibh a chairde go léir, my name is James Nagle, welcome to The Irish Nation Lives. For almost two weeks in April of 1919
Limerick City was governed by a workers council which had its own police force
and issued its own currency. To understand what led to the birth of
the Limerick Soviet we need to go back to December of 1918. On New Year’s Eve
the RIC raided the home of Robert Byrne. A member of the Irish Volunteers, in
November Byrne had been elected adjutant of the second Battalion which covered
Limerick City. He had been sacked from his position as a telegraph operator by
the Limerick GPO because of his involvement with the trade union
movement and had been on the RIC’s watch list since he attended the funeral
of John Daly in 1916, an uncle of Kathleen Clark. At his house an unloaded
revolver was discovered along with ammunition and a pair of field
binoculars. He was arrested and at his trial he refused to recognize the
authority of the court and was sentenced to 12 months hard labor. At Limerick
prison on the 5th of February Byrne led 16 prisoners in a demand for political
status. They barricaded themselves into their cells, smashed furniture and sang
rebel songs so loudly that they could be heard from the streets outside. The
protest was put down by baton charge and the prisoners were shackled to their
beds in solitary confinement. In response to this they went on hunger strike. After
three weeks Byrnes health had deteriorated to such a degree that he
was transferred under heavy armed guard to the Union workhouse hospital. East
Tipperary TD Pierce McCann had died in prison due to the Spanish flu a week
earlier and authorities didn’t want any more deaths causing further bad press.
Though under 24-hour armed guard Byrne was kept in a public ward with other
patients. This provided the volunteers with a chance to free him and on Sunday
the 6th of April 20 volunteers entered the hospital posing as visitors under
the command of Michael Stack. When all were in place Stack blew his whistle and
volunteers rushed to grab hold of Byrne but one of his guards, Constable James
Spillane, drew his pistol and shot him in the chest at point-blank range.
They pulled Byrne free and made their escape after overwhelming the rest of
the guard. Byrne was taken by horse and cart
house just outside the city over the Clare border. Already weak from the
hunger strike Robert Byrne died from his injury at half eight in the evening. On
the 10th of April Byrne’s remains were carried from St. John’s Cathedral to
Mount St. Lawrence Cemetery, bringing the city to a standstill.
Businesses is closed as a mark of respect, a crowd of over 10,000 lined the
streets and a group of British soldiers even stood to attention and saluted the
coffin. Their superiors however were less respectful. The escape attempt had
rattled them and Limerick was proclaimed a special military area under the
Defence of the Realms act. Barricades, manned by soldiers and tanks, were set up
to block all routes into and out of the military area which didn’t include the
working-class residents of Thomondgate. They would need to pass the barricades
four times a day to get to and from work and for this they would need a military
permit issued in person by Brigadier General CJ Griffin. On the 13th of April
the Limerick Trades and Labour council met at the Mechanics Institute, attended
by 35 trade unions, and issued the following proclamation: The workers of
Limerick assembled in council, hereby declare cessation of all work from 5:00
a.m. on Monday April 14th 1919 as a protest against the decision of the
British government in compelling them to procure permits in order to earn their
daily bread. By order of the strike committee Mechanics Institute.
The next morning 15,000 workers joined the strike. the Limerick Soviet had begun.
Depots were set up within the city to supply food at fixed prices and labour
was provided for essential industries such as bakeries and the gas and
electric works. Opening and closing times of shops were regulated and all public
houses were closed for the duration of the strike. The Soviets diltats were
enforced by a civilian police force and any company engaged in profiteering was
closed down. Outside the city the Irish Volunteers gathered food and other
supplies from the surrounding countryside and smuggled them across the
river Shannon by boat at night. Funeral hearses entered the military area from
the Union workhouse and more often than not contained supplies instead of bodies.
The Soviet benefited massively from the teams of international journalists who
had gathered to report on an attempted transatlantic flight. Major JCP Wood was
expected to refuel at the city on his way to Newfoundland but when news came
in that he had ditched his plane off the coast of Wales the media turned its
attention to the Soviet, with headlines appearing in the New York Times on the
15th. Brigadier General Griffin tried to ease tensions on the 17th by allowing
members of the Limerick Chamber of Commerce to issue permits to their
employees directly but this was unacceptable to the strike committee. On
the same day Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson arrived to represent the Irish
Trades Union Council, announcing that “the full strength of the labor movement in
Ireland backed by the general public would be exerted on behalf of the men
and women of Limerick”. The Irish Times was no friend of Irish nationalism or
the plight of the Limerick strikers but it was correct in its assessment that
“the strike is too big for a small city like Limerick and it is bound to
collapse unless substantial outside aid is forthcoming”.
The Irish Trade and General Workers Union contributed 1000 pounds to, as
they put it, “raise the Siege of Limerick” and at a convention on the 20th of April
the GAA made a grant of 100 pounds and began a series of matches to raise
further funds. Practical help and support however was less forthcoming. A number of British trade unions which covered workers in Ireland came out in
opposition to the strike. JH Thomas, MP and general secretary of the National
Union of Railwaymen, advised members of the Union in Ireland not to take part
and the British Labour Party and Trade Union Council were similarly
unsupportive. For all of his promises Thomas Johnson could offer a little more
than verbal support. The Mechanics Institute, the Soviets headquarters, was
calling for a national strike but Johnson informed them that this couldn’t
be done without a special conference of the party and Congress. The Soviets
biggest victory occurred on the 21st of April. Following a hurling match at Caherdavin which was outside the special military area up to 1,000 people paraded
around a checkpoint but refused to show permits. In the evening some of them rowed across the Shannon but most stayed at Thomondgate and an open-air
concert was organized with Irish dancing and singing. The next morning they
boarded a train for Limerick City at Longpavement station and managed to
avoid a detachment of soldiers sent to check their permits, marching
triumphantly from the terminus into the city. As time wore on though cracks began
to show in the Soviet regime. Many of the workers, especially those who didn’t need
permits, wanted to return to work. The Chamber of Commerce met on the 23rd to
discuss using scab labor and supply problems were becoming rife; coal
merchants for example had grown hostile to the strike and were refusing to open
their yards. While money was being collected nationwide it couldn’t reach
the city and food supplies were also beginning to run low. A finance
subcommittee was formed on the 14th to fund the Soviet and with the help of
Thomas Johnson they designed and issued their own currency to solve the money
problem, in denominations of 1 5 and 10 shillings.
But without a nationwide strike in support of the Soviet it couldn’t
continue for much longer. On the 24th of April the Bishop of Limerick Dr. Denis
Hallinan and the Mayor, Adolphus O’Mara, met with the strike
committee and negotiated an end to the Soviet. John Cronin the chairman of the
strike committee issued a proclamation calling on all those who did not need
permits to return to work the following day but that those who did need permits
should continue to refuse. Brigadier General Griffin agreed that if there was
no trouble for a week the barricades would be lifted, and thus the Soviet
ended. Hallinan decided to act after hearing of a plan proposed by Thomas
Johnson to evacuate the entire city and leave it as an empty shell in the hands
of the military. Even though Johnson’s suggestion was rejected by the strike
committee it demonstrated the limited options that were available to them and
that nationwide support would not be coming. Although many felt that their
sacrifices had been for nothing the workers of Limerick could be proud
that for two weeks they, alone, had taken a principled stand against British
militarism. Treasurer and head of the finance subcommittee James Casey later
wrote: “it was generally admitted that the city was never guarded or policed so
well previously. The people, for once, were doing their own
work and doing it properly. There was no looting and not a single
case came up for hearing at the Petty Session”. There was a small core of
radical socialist thought in Ireland at this time, in February for example Peader
O’Donnell had declared the Soviet in County Monaghan
and at Berne the Irish Labour Party had supported a motion on the Proletarian
Dictatorship, a tacit approval of the Soviet system in Russia which was
rejected by the conference over all. But these were only limited examples. While
it would be wrong to brush the Limerick Soviet off as a marketing exercise they
weren’t exactly adherents to the works of Marx or Lenin either. An American
journalist, Ruth Russell, recounted red badged guards of the Civic police
standing for the Angelus and the mayor told her that there was no support for
communism in the area saying: “there can’t be. The people here are Catholics”. One
church leader even told her that Ireland had had its own brand of socialism in
the days of St. Patrick and had nothing to fear from the Soviet. The Irish labor
and Trade Union movements were undergoing a decoupling from the British
movement and had achieved a major victory by gaining separate
representation at Berne. Labour especially though displayed considerable weakness
and a lack of unified purpose during the Limerick Soviet as it had in the run-up
to the 1918 general election. British trade unions with branches in Ireland
were not going to come out against their own military and the Soviet gained only
what the Irish Times described as “the injurious praise of the British Socialist
Party and of the Independent Labour Party”. Some of these problems were down
to the workers unilateral action in calling the strike without first
discussing the matter with Labour so that better plans could be made. Sinn
Féin also provided very little support for the Soviet. They didn’t like the idea
of Labour acting on its own initiative and viewed them as a tool to be used to
achieve the successes of the wider national struggle. Strikes should be used
to back Sinn Féin led campaigns, such as the Conscription crisis or the general
strike called in April of 1920 in support of hunger strikers. In the face
of severe adversity the Limerick Soviet lasted for
almost two weeks and stood down with a compromise which kept the majority of
their pride intact. When the money collected nationwide was used to buy
back the currency they issued there was a surplus remaining, making the Soviet a
financial success. Inspired by their efforts numerous workers Soviets would
spring up throughout the country in the years of turmoil ahead, but none would be
on the same scale, or achieve the same level of fame, as the Limerick Soviet. A chairde, thank you for joining me on the Irish nation lives,
slán go fóill

2 Comments on "The Limerick Soviet | April 1919 – Episode 10"

  1. Corrections:
    07:28 The Finance Subcommittee was formed on the 18th of April, not the 14th.

    07:53 In the narration I give the first name of the Mayor of Limerick incorrectly as Adolphus instead of Alphonsus.


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