Six major factors caused the Limerick Soviet to happen when it did. These were
- The Rise of Nationalism
- The Easter Rising
- The First World War
- Fall of the Russian Court
- Rise of Trade Unions
- The War of Independence.
These factors did not happen independently of each other but were all part of a tangled web of cultural change both nationally and internationally.
The most notable date in the rise of nationalism in Limerick was 1899. When Limerick had elected a Labour Party, to a majority on its corporation. Republican John Daly would become the Mayor of Limerick. This was surprising as Ireland was still under the rule of the English Crown at the time and Daly had previously been imprisoned for treason.
At the general election of December 1918, Limerick elected Sinn Féin member Michael Colivet. The Mayor of Limerick in 1919 was also a Sinn Féin member, Alphonsus O’Mara.
Limerick Nationalists played a major role in the 1916 Rising. Although unsuccessful the Roman Catholic Bishop of Limerick Edward O’Dwyer condemned the British executions of the Rising leaders. As Limerick was an extremely religious city at the time, this would have been seen as an endorsement of the Nationalist movement.
Saying that Limerick was Garrison City and it was unsurprising that with the outbreak of the First World War many Limerick men enlisted. Their enlistment was financially beneficial as they were guaranteed a wage while in service.
In April 1918, with a shortage of troops for the war in Europe, the British Government decided to extend conscription to Ireland. By this time, the horrors of wars were well known in Ireland and a friction arose. Politicians, the Church and the labour movement, came together in their opposition to conscription. This resulted in a general strike in protest on 23 April 1918, which lead to the idea of conscription in Ireland being abandoned. This was a significant victory over the British Government.
At the end of the war, Europe was in turmoil. Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed. This coincided with the rise of Socialism and the fall of the Russian Court. There was widespread social and economic revolution throughout the continent.
The aftermath of the 1916 Rising had removed most of the militant Nationalist leaders from circulation. This allowed the rise of the militant labour movement, in an alliance with the new Sinn Féin movement.
Trade unions began in earnest at a national level after the 1913 lockouts in Dublin. The membership of unions rose from 130,000 at the end of 1916 to 320,000 in August 1920. With the I.T.G.W.U., making up the largest part of this, growing from 5,000 to 120,000.
Unlike other major Irish cities, Limerick got no I.T.G.W.U. branch until July 1917. Limerick at the time had individual unions based on trades, such as tailoring, bricklayers.
Sean Cronin, the Limerick Chairman of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters had been very critical of the influence of the ‘Dublin Socialists’ in his movement. This fracture within the national Labour and Union movement would have an impact on the longevity of the Limerick Strike.
The local workers in the Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Company in early April 1919 threatened strike action for better conditions in the Condensed Milk Company’s factories. The Company retaliated with a policy of ‘divide and rule’. First of all, it awarded a 48 hour week at a wage of 11/4d per hour to its 600 workers at Lansdowne (where it had its headquarters). At the same time, it sacked the factory’s I.T.G.W.U. shop steward.
Finally on 21 January, 1919, Dail Eireann held its opening session and the Irish Volunteers caused the first fatality since 1916 at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary. This ushered in the start of the War of Independence. This caused a military reaction from the British government who focused its attention on the Midwest region and possible insurgents.
One of those who was already under military surveillance was Robert Byrne. Also known as known as Booby and Bertie. As early as 1916 he was believed by the RIC police force to be a Sinn Féin activist. In December 1918, he was elected adjutant of 2nd Battalion, Limerick Brigade, IRA.
Byrne was born 28 November 1889 in Dublin. His mother Annie Byrne (née Hurley) was a native of Limerick. He later moved with his family to Townwall Cottages, Limerick city.
He was working as a telegraph operator at Limerick general post office when he became involved in nationalist and labour politics. He was branch president of the Post Office Clerks’ Association and their representative on Limerick’s United Trades and Labour Council.
In January 1919, he was discharged for a combination of union activities and attending the funeral of an Irish Volunteer, John Daly.
On 13 January 1919, when a revolver was found at his mother’s home, he was arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to twelve months in prison.
Not long after this Byrne started a campaign of disobedience. Some prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and given only bread and water. Byrne went on hunger strike to protest the treatment
On 1 February, the Limerick United Trades and Labour Council passed a motion of protest against the treatment of the political prisoners. The motion called on the local deputies and councillors to ensure the prisoners political status.
The Rescue Attempt
After three weeks of hunger strike, the prison authorities became worried about Byrne’s condition. On March 12, he was removed to the Limerick Workhouse hospital. On 6 April over twenty Volunteers entered the hospital pretending to be visitors. This resulted in the shooting of two guards causing the death of Constable Martin O’Brien a native of Birr and the wounding of Byrne.
Byrne was freed during the raid, but later died at the house of John Ryan of Knockalisheen, Meelick, Co. Clare. It is unclear whether he received his fatal wound from a guard or Batty Stack, the only armed Volunteer. A series of arrests followed that evening, including those of Mrs Ryan and Mrs Byrne.
His removal to Limerick cathedral on 8 April was the occasion of a huge republican demonstration, and an estimated ten thousands filed past the body as it lay in state.
The authorities’ issued a public notice:
The Government have no wish to interfere with the solemnity and dignity of any funeral ceremonial, but they cannot tolerate any defiance of law. Anything in the shape of a military parade or assembly in military formation will at once be stopped. The Government will accept no responsibility for any consequences which may arise from disobedience of this order.
The following day thousands also lined the street as his was carried draped in the tri-colour through the city centre before arriving at Mount Saint Lawrence Cemetery.
There was a strong military presence and the authorities reacted by invoking the defence of the realm act to declare the city a ‘special military area’ and maintaining a large presence at the funeral.
On Wednesday, April 9, 1919, Lieutenant-General the Right Honourable Sir Frederick Shaw KCB, Commander-in-Chief Ireland, appointed Brigadier-General C J Griffin as the Competent Military Authority throughout Ireland. In a separate notice, most of Limerick City and a part of the county were placed under General Griffin’s authority, as a Special Military Area. This was intended to flush out IRA men concealed in the midst of local populations.
So, on Friday 11th April, a large area in and around the Borough of Limerick was declared to be under martial law as from the following Tuesday.
Special Military Area
The Special Military Area enabled the military to issue exit and entry permits for the area and made the population subject to police inspections at any time. Tanks were used to secure the streets at entry points to the Special Military Area.
The restrictions were quite repressive and were resented by the population at large. These passes prevented many living in the city centre to reach their places of work in Cleeve’s and Walker’s distillery. Two of the largest employers in the city during that period. Or for those in the Thomondgate area to enter the city.
Entire suburbs had been divided under the regulations and the supply of milk to the city, would be seriously disrupted. Tenants who held vegetable allotments in the rural area North of the Shannon would be unable to tend them.
Each pass contained information on a persons name, address, age, occupation and either a photograph or a description of their height, built, hair and eye colour.
Only children under the age of sixteen were permitted to cross the bridges without a permit.
The Strike aka the Limerick Soviet
The Limerick Trades and Labour Council was an umbrella organisation of 35 trade unions. Its president was John Cronin of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters.
The committee had the example of the Dublin general strike of 1913 and “soviet” (meaning a self-governing committee) had become a popular term after 1917 from the soviets that had led to the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
At a meeting on Sunday 13 April, the Limerick Trades and Labour Council called a general strike in Limerick, to protest at martial law and the fact that many workers had to have permits and pass through the military checkpoints to go to and from work each day.
The workers of Limerick, assembled in Council, hereby declare cessation of all work from 5 am on Monday April 14, 1919, as a protest against the decision of the British Government in compelling them to procure permits in order to earn their bread.
By that Monday evening 14,000 workers had joined the strike. The city at the time had a population of 38,000.
The strike committee took over the administration of Limerick. The distribution of food throughout the city was regulated and prices were strictly controlled. The Limerick Trades and Labour Council published its own newspaper and issued its own currency.
A headache for the Strike Committee was the shortage of money. This was reduced by gifts supplied by outside trades councils and trade unions. Various sympathisers, including the G.A.A. and the Bishop, the Sinn Féiner, Dr. Michael Fogarty and the clergy of the Killaloe diocese, sent gifts.
The Finance Sub-Committee designed special bank notes to be issued on the credit of Limerick and its Strike Committee. Notes were produced in sizes of £1, £5 and 10s-.
This money was accepted by numbers of shopkeepers upon the promise of redemption by the Trades Council.
The Committee granted permits on the first day of the strike for shops to sell bread, milk and potatoes from 2 to 5 p.m., as from the next day, and for the bakeries to keep up production. On 15th April, it allowed the butchers and on Wednesday 16th April, the coal merchants to open similarly.
In a recording from the 1990s, Patrick Barry recalled the background to a hurling match that took place in Caherdavin. Patrick was 18 years old when the Limerick Soviet took place.
The match took place on Monday 21 April and on returning to the city about 300 people refused who to show their permits or denied having them at Sarsfield Bridge check-point. They were quickly faced by 50 constables and the tank and armoured car. The crowd turned back towards Thomondgate where some crossed the river by boat. Although the majority, took part in a concert, dance and supper at St. Munchin’s Temperance Hall in Thomondgate.
Next morning, supporters brought hundreds of boxes of eggs, butter, gallons of new milk and loaves of home-made bread and the demonstrators all ate a hearty breakfast. Soon after this, protesters then boarded a train for Limerick at Longpavement station. This crossed the Shannon and arrived at the city terminus. Here the people got out at the opposite side of the platform to where the troops were waiting.
Negotiates were held throughout the strike.The British Army softened the regulations governing the issue of permits, by suggesting that employers be allowed to issue them, a move rejected in the first instance by the Soviet’s leaders.
The hope of its organisers that it might become a country-wide general strike, or that Limerick might be evacuated, were not realised, leaving the strikers few options but to accept a settlement.
After two weeks the Mayor O’Mara, and the Catholic Bishop Denis Hallinan called for the strike to end, and the Strike Committee issued a proclamation on 27 April 1919 stating that the strike was over.
In the event, any IRA men who were within the Special Military Area kept a low profile throughout the proceedings and it proved ineffective in its efforts to flush them out. On 5 May, Military restrictions were officially ended.
The news of the Strike would note had made the headlines if it were not for another event that brought international press into the city and county.
A transatlantic air race was being organised from Bawnmore in County Limerick at the same time, but was cancelled after the plane of Mayor Woods crashed on route.
This caused many of journalists from outlets such as Chicago Tribune, the Paris Matin, and the Associated Press of America, an agency serving 750 papers to take up the story of an Irish soviet and interviewed the organisers.
Without this press coverage it would be unlikely that the strike would have lasted as long as it did.
For the most comprehensive information on the Limerick Soviet read Liam Cahill’s daily tweets or check out his book Forgotten Revolution: Limerick Soviet 1919: A Threat to British Power in Ireland
A series of events are planned for the centenary of this event, you can keep up to date with them at Limerick Soviet 100