Workers throwing out the boss, hoisting a red flag and proclaiming a Soviet are not something that you would normally associate with Irish history. That sort of stuff is normally presumed to have happened in Europe but not Ireland. Most history books describe all Irish people as being united with the sole aim of driving the British out. Yet Ireland was caught in a wave of Socialism similar to that in Italy and France. During the War of Independence over 100 Soviets were set up in Ireland. Although it is now forgotten, many thought Bolshevism was a greater threat to British rule than Sinn Fein.
All across Europe there were strikes and revolutions. The mass slaughter of the First World War lead many to desire a new society and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was an inspiration for many. There was a Soviet republic in Hungary and several German cities, as well as mass factory occupations in Italy. This was referred to as the “Red Years”. Ireland was no exception. Limerick city was occupied and run as a Soviet for two weeks in 1919 (the subject of my last post) and the countryside was the scene of something near class warfare (the subject of my next post).
It was a revolutionary time. People were challenging the old order, the old way of doing things and it wasn’t always clear what would replace it. In 1918 10,000 people rallied outside the Mansion House in Dublin to celebrate the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. There was a massive growth in trade union activity. The Irish Trades Union Congress grew from 111,000 in 1914 to 250,000 in 1920 to 300,000 in 1921. The Labour Party got 22% of the vote in the election of 1922, the same number as anti-treaty Sinn Fein despite having half the candidates. It was clear that Labour issues were just as important as national ones.
There were numerous Soviets set up at the time. In May 1921, a self-described Bolshevik Geoffrey Coulter, lead an occupation of the Arigna mines in Leitrim, by its workers in a dispute over pay. The mine was run as a Soviet for two months before the workers got a pay rise and handed back the mine to its owners. 700 engineers in Dublin and Drogheda took over their foundry and proclaimed a Soviet. It lasted six weeks before the RIC crushed it. There was an attempt to increase the hours of railway staff in January 1922. The workers responded by seizing the railway and running it themselves. After two days the employers backed down. In February 1922 two flour mills in Cork were seized by their employees. A gasworks in Waterford was seized and run under workers control for six weeks. This inspired Tipperary gas workers to have their own Soviet.
In May 1920 workers in Knocklong creameries, frustrated with their tyrannical boss and some of the lowest wages in the country revolted. They kicked out the hated manager and declared a Soviet. This was a carefully made plan. Workers had arranged contracts to sell butter before the factory was even taken over (see part 2 of the video below). Deals were also made with the local farmers and supplies continued as normal. It operated for five days under the slogan: “We make butter not profits.” It won a pay rise, shorter hours and the removal of the unpopular manager.
On August 26th 1921, the bakery and mills in Bruree County Limerick were occupied by its employees. All staff bar the manager and chief clerk joined the occupation. They hoisted a red flag and declared the “Bruree Soviet Workers Mill” was the property of workers and would sell its food cheap and reduce “profiteering”. Union officials claimed the Soviet was able to drop prices, double sales and increase wages. Countess Markievicz threatened to use the IRA to intervene against the Soviet and on the 3rd of September the Soviet ended.
Cork harbour workers had withheld their complaints over pay in the national interest, instead focusing on winning Irish independence. However in August, during the Truce, they went on strike and shut down the harbour. The Harbour offices were seized and the red flag was raised over them. The head of union, Robert Day, was made “Chief Commissioner of the Port”. He declared they were Bolsheviks whose loyalty was with the red flag. After two weeks they succeeded in winning a large pay rise at a time when dockers were having their pay cut.
Creamery owners attempted to cut wages by one-third in May 1922. In protest, almost one hundred creameries were seized and turned into Soviets. The main ones were in Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir, Bansha, Kilmaollock, Knocklong, Bruree, Athlacca, Tankardstown, Ballingady and Aherlow. They were able to do this due to the political situation at the time. The Free State had yet to assert itself. The Irish Farmers Union organised boycotts of the Soviets which defeated most of them. Several creameries were the victim of arson. The Tipperary Soviet resisted longer and was involved in a shoot out with the anti-treaty side. The gasworks were destroyed by the retreating anti-treaty forces. The pro-treaty side crushed Soviets under the cover of war as it regained territory from the anti-treaty side.
Soviets were set up around the country, but particularly in Munster. In April a red flag flew over Tipperary town coachworks as a Soviet was declared. Soviets were set up in unusual places too, like the Castleconnel fisheries and the Monaghan mental hospital, where staff (supported by the inmates) barricaded themselves inside for twelve days before finally winning a pay rise. Unemployed workers seized and reopened a closed sawmill in Ballinacourty Tipperary. This was eventually broken up by the IRA. Braodford, County Clare too had its own Soviet. Similarly The IRA was used to break up strikes in Whitechurch, Youghal and Fermoy.
There were many other displays of labour militancy. In 1918 the British government proposed to introduce conscription into Ireland. There was widespread outrage and the trade unions called a general strike. On the 23rd of April 1918, almost every business (outside of Belfast) was closed. A contemporary report described the strike:
“Railways, docks, factories, mills, theatres, cinemas, trams, public services, shipyards, newspapers, shops, even the Government munitions factories, and the stoppage was complete and entire.”
May Day 1919 was a massive event with 100,000 workers claimed to have taken part. There were 233 strikes in 1920, four times as many as during the war. Almost every town in Ireland experienced a general strike. In April 1920 Republican prisoners in Mountjoy went on hunger strike to protest their imprisonment and to demand political status. A general strike was declared in support and almost every town in Ireland ground to a standstill. Many towns followed the example of the Limerick Soviet and ran the town for the duration of the strike. In Bagnelstown, A Provisional Soviet Government was proclaimed. Kostick writes that “For two days the workers of Ireland, outside of Belfast and Derry, were in charge of the country.”He argues that had they pushed their advantage there could have been a revolution similar to that in Russia. While this sounds unlikely he argues that countries just as rural, religious and conservative as Ireland too became Communist.
The manifesto of the Dail, the Democratic Programme was drafted by the Labour Part and contains such phrases as “we reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.” It further declared “the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the nations labour.” It promised to look after the welfare of all the children, sick and infirm, that they should not suffer from hunger or cold nor be treated as a burden. All the land and wealth of the country was said to belong to all the people. However little was done to make these words a reality.
In Belfast, the Labour party was able to overcome sectarianism to win a quarter of the vote. In January 1919, a general strike over working hours spread and developed and Soviet was declared that would run the city. Strikes shut down electricity for a month and closed the shipyards. The mayor of Belfast admitted that it was the Soviet, not himself that made the decisions in the city. At the time this was a far greater concern to British authorities than the Dail or the IRA.
In 1920, transport workers refused to handle British troops and weapons. It began when dockers refused to unload weapons. The soldiers had to unload these themselves only to find that the railways refused to carry them. This strike was so successful that it was nearly impossible for the British to transport arms around the country. Some argue that this and other strikes did more damage to British rule than the activities of the IRA. The struggle continued for months and 1,500 rail workers were sacked before they argued to carry supplies for the British.
There were unsuccessful strikes in Dublin ports, these along with the split cause by Jim Larkin, dealt a heavy blow to trade unionism in Ireland. A declining economy and the damage of the Civil War meant trade unions declined until they were a shadow of their former selves. Most of the Soviets were crushed by the Free State army. After the Civil War no opposition to the government was accepted. The unions that at the start of the 1920s run entire towns and factories, by the end of the decade struggled to survive.
The Soviets are a little known piece of Irish history that I was surprised to learn about. Rural Ireland is the last place I ever expected to find a Soviet. Whatever you think of them, you have to admit they’re certainly a fascinating and unconventional part of our heritage. They offer a glimpse at an alternative route Ireland could have gone down. While I’m not sure how accurate some sources are in their view a socialist revolution in Ireland was for the taking had the labour leadership not betrayed the workers, it is interesting none the less. They were different times.
(My main sources for this was Conor Kostick, D.R. O’Connor Lysaght and Diarmuid Ferriter. This topic is unfortunately under researched so there is very little information out there. Below is a brilliant documentary made by TG4 on the topic. It’s in Irish but has subtitles.)