The story of the Limerick Soviet is most likely not widely known outside of Ireland and England. However, in April 1919 the people of Limerick stormed the world’s stage by proclaiming workers control over the city and the establishment of socialism. Newspapers from around the world headlined the workers rebellion in Limerick and the establishment of a Soviet, meaning workers control, in Limerick. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia had shook the world only two years prior, and now it seemed Ireland was on the verge of having its very own communist revolution. The events that transpired in April 1919 still prove to be a stark reminder of organized working class power.
The spark that lit the fuse for the call of a general strike in Limerick, was the death of a popular Irish Republican and trade unionist Robert Byrne. Robert Byrne was arrested and sent to prison on January 13th 1919, on trumped up charges for possession of a revolver and ammunition. While in prison Byrne helped organize and participate in a hunger strike to protest the horrible conditions prisoners were subjected to.
While on his hunger strike, Byrnes health deteriorated and he was transferred to the prison hospital. News of the arrest and hunger strike spread to Byrne’s comrades who sensed an opportunity to embarrass the British and boost morale by freeing Byrnes from prison. The Limerick IRA decided to send 24 men to enter the prison hospital disguised as visitors. However, the rescue operation did not go as planned. Gunfire erupted during the attempted break out with Byrne taking a bullet during the escape. Byrne was carried out of the prison hospital by his comrades but died shortly after.
The news of Byrne’s death quickly spread around Limerick. The British government was disturbed by the bold attempted prison break and quickly declared the city of Limerick to be a ‘special military area.’ On Wednesday April 9th 1919 the UK government released the following statement “The Government have no wish to interfere with the solemnity and dignity of any funeral ceremonial, but they cannot tolerate any defiance of the law.” Ten thousand people attended the funeral procession of Robert Byrne to Saint John’s Cathedral with British soldiers lining the streets with bayonets fixed upon their rifles and military planes flying closely overhead. The British army was displaying a clear show of force and sending a message to the residents of Limerick of who was still in charge.
On April 11th Limerick was declared to be under martial law, any citizen who wished to enter or exit the martial law area had to have a permit with photographic proof of identity. This caused quite a disturbance for the workers of Limerick, because some had to commute to their jobs outside of the new military zone.
Unrest quickly spread and the next day the workers of the Condensed Milk Company’s Lansdowne factory agreed to a strike in protest. Quickly momentum began to build and some of Ireland’s most militant unions including the IT & GWU and the Irish Clerical Allied Workers union agreed to call a General Strike until the city was relieved from martial law.
The Strike Committee named Sean Cronin, the chairman of the United Trades and Labour Council, to serve as the new chairman. Cronin and the strikers quickly sprang into action; they created placards explaining the purpose of the strike and hung them up all over the city. Cronin stated “We, as organized workers, refuse to ask them for permits to earn our daily bread, and this strike is a protest against their action.” The Strike Committee then set to work on ensuring the city did not run out of food and even maintained a crew of workers to provide gas, electricity and water for Limerick.
The strike was quickly becoming a success and was joined by 15,000 unionized workers. The general strike crossed class lines and was even joined by small-scale capitalists and the shopkeepers. The martial law also annoyed the larger capitalist class because it interfered with their workers abilities to show up to their workplace on time. The political party Sinn Fein also initially backed the general strike. Despite the class collaboration, true power was in the hands of the unions. It was the organized working class who brought the city to a halt and had firm control over the industries and public utilities of Limerick.
As author D.R. O’Connor Lysaght states, “The council’s Chairman, Cronin, was careful not to develop his aims beyond the immediate struggle to remove the Military Permit Order.” Even though the strike had ties some bourgeois elements including Sinn Fein “The Limerick Soviet remains a working-class strategy, executed by a conscious, if undeveloped, labour movement. Sinn Féin, conceived from the start as a capitalist body, could not have directed it.” The general strike reached across class lines in Limerick, but it was the working class who directed and controlled the Soviet. It was the organized working class who shook the world with their declaration of a Soviet in Ireland.
The Strike Committee quickly set to work in reorganizing the city with workers control at the helm. A propaganda sub committee was created to continue workers publications such as the daily Workers’ Bulletin. Chairman Cronin ensured there was a steady supply of food available to the Soviet, fixed prices of basic necessities and quickly shut down profiteers. The Soviet even issued its own form of currency which was due in no small part to Tom Johnson, treasurer of the Trade Union Congress and liaison to the Limerick Soviet.
The Strike Committee only allowed cars and cabs to drive through the streets if they displayed the notice “Working Under Authority of the Strike Committee’. There is a notable story of an US Army Officer visiting Limerick who expressed his amazement at ‘who rules in these parts. One has to get a Military Permit to get in, and be brought before the Soviet to get a permit to leave.’ There was no doubt to the citizens of Limerick and visitors from abroad that the working class had successfully taken control over the city.
The workers of Limerick and the Soviet headed by Mike Cronin had successfully navigated numerous issues such as maintaining the public utilities, issuing currency and opening up supply lines. Despite the initial dizzying success, the Committee was ultimately condemned and eventually attacked by the local bourgeoisie and high-ranking British trade unionists. Although some nominal support came from the British Socialist Party and the Independent Labor Party. The Strike seemed to be gaining many enemies without much material support from the outside, despite the setbacks the strike increased in it’s worker militancy.
On April 21st an Easter hurling match was to be held outside of the proclaimed military area. Around 300 Limerick Soviet strikers attended the match and upon their return from the match, defiantly refused to show their permits at a British military at Sarsfield Bridge. The British guards at the checkpoint were quickly reinforced with 50 constables, tank and armored car. Undeterred by the show of force, the strikers paraded in a circle around stopping only at the checkpoint and refusing to show their permits. This protest carried on until the next day with some strikers crossing the river by boat while Johnson helped to organize “a midnight concert, dance and supper at a nearby temperance hall, and slept there or camped out.”
The following day warning shots were fired by British troops when Soviet workers refused to show their permits. Although no one was killed, it was clear that the British were not going to tolerate another Sarsfield Bridge incident. The rabble had to be put back into their place. Although the patience of the British was wearing thin, the strike “continued to gain support amongst the workers. On the 23rd, the clerks at the Union workhouse joined it.” Despite small setback from a shortage of currency, and the refusal of British Trade Unions to lend support it seemed the Soviet could continue to survive.
One April 20th two members of the Labour Party National Executive arrived in Limerick for a meeting with Cronin and the Strike Committee. Cronin knew that in order for the Limerick Soviet to survive the struggle had to expand to all of Ireland. He offered up command of the Soviet to the National Executive. Cronins reasoning was “he knew what had to be done to win the strike and believed that the National Executive members would be able and willing to expand the struggle.” Cronin was hoping that the National Executive would call out the railway workers into a strike and Limerick would be the launching pad of a complete social and national revolution in Ireland.
The Fall of the Limerick Soviet
Over the course of the next two days more members of the National Executive traveled to Limerick and discussed the future of the Limerick Soviet with the Strike Committee. Cronin’s desires for a grand revolution in Ireland were dashed. The National Executive stated even if they decided to call for a national general strike, such a strike was destined to last for only a few days at best. The National Executive believed Ireland was not prepared for a social and economic revolution.
Instead of calling for a socialist revolution in Ireland, the brilliant minds of the National Executive instead offered a complete evacuation of the city of Limerick. Their ridiculous reasoning was Limerick would become “an empty shell in the hands of the military” therefore rendering the city useless. The idea of a social and national revolution seemed too far-fetched for the National Executive, but a pointless evacuation of Ireland’s 5th largest city seemed the best course of action. As Lysaght put it “The Executive was prepared to go to any lengths to avoid a confrontation with the occupying forces.” The Strike Committee recognized the utter foolishness of a complete evacuation and rejected the proposal.
The Limerick Soviet was running low on options and very low on concrete material support. The bourgeoisie of the city began to sense the weakness and went in for the kill. The next day the Mayor and Bishop of Limerick met with General Griffin and reached a compromise. Both the bourgeoisie and the British army wanted an end to the Soviet and a return to normalcy. The bourgeoisie would support the demise of the Soviet and in return General Griffin would withdraw the Military Permit Order. The death knell of the Limerick Soviet had begun.
The Mayor and the Bishop urged workers to return to their factories and call off the strike. Slowly workers began to return to their jobs, while others held out on the strike. On Sunday Father William Dwane took to his pulpit and denounced the strike! He urged his congregation to return to their jobs and to cross the picket line. The pressures from the forces of reaction were in full swing. The next day only the mills and bacon factories held out on strike. A week later the military permit order was withdrawn and permits were deemed unnecessary. The strike faded away and Limerick returned to normalcy.
According to Lysaght the defeat of the Limerick Soviet was caused by “the Strike Committee’s acceptance of bourgeois leadership. However, this was itself caused by the refusal of the National Executive of the Labour Party and TUC to embark on a struggle that might have caused major problems, but which could have led to the Workers’ Republic.” Many also blame Eamon De Valera’s, prominent Irish Statesmen, in his declaration in 1917 that “Labor can wait” until Irish liberty was achieved. The policy of “labor can wait” greatly impacted the ability of the Left in Ireland to reach its full potential.
Perhaps the most important reason for the fall of the Limerick Soviet was the willing inability of the national trade unions to support the strike. If a general strike had been declared across Ireland there is a strong likelihood that the Soviet movement would of spread across the country, leading to a workers republic. The lack of solidarity for the strikers left the Limerick Soviet without much meaningful material support. Although the strike cannot be called a total loss, the workers did achieve their goal of having the military permit withdrawn.
There are several lessons to be learned from the Limerick Soviet. Although it was but a brief page in the annals history, The Limerick Soviet provides a small example of what an organized proletariat can achieve when they take power into their own collective hands. However, looking back in hindsight we should also recognize where the Soviet fell short. A temporary uneasy alliance with the bourgeoisie class elements eventually played a part in the undoing of the Limerick Soviet. The reactionary class dynamics in Limerick most likely would have been easily outmaneuvered if the rest of organized workers in Ireland joined in the general strike.
Looking forward, a modern socialist revolution may have to make a similar temporary uneasy alliance with bourgeoisie class elements. Revolutionary socialist history has shown one primary example to mind is Mao’s temporary alliance with the nationalist Kuomintang in order to defeat the invading Japanese imperialist army. However, socialists should always understand that these alliances are only for agreeable situations and are strictly temporary. Socialists should also recognize the grave importance of a well-organized and unified working class. Through the organized proletariat a revolution will run fewer risks of being isolated and cut off from support.
Perhaps one of the biggest achievements of the Limerick Soviet was the fact the workers of Limerick managed to gain control over Ireland’s 5th largest city without even firing a shot. The Soviet also showcased the creativity and ingenuity of the working class’s ability to solve complex problems of production and distribution. The Soviet strikers of Limerick provided a fleeting glimpse into the possibility of new social and economic system, one of which that is run by the working class and for the working class. “For two short weeks, the city had shown Ireland the vision of the Workers’ Republic.”