Ireland is probably the last place in the world that you expect workers to host a red flag and seize control of a business let alone an entire city. That sort of stuff is usually considered too continental for our liking. Yet this is exactly what happened in 1919. A soviet was declared and the workers seized control of essential supplies. They even printed their own money. Nor was this some irrelevant backwater but rather Ireland’s fourth largest city.
At the end of the First World War revolution broke out across Europe. The Bolshevik revolution in 1917 inspired workers to seize control of factories. Soviet Republics were set up in Germany and Hungary and workers councils were set up in Italy. Although it is usually ignored by the history books, Ireland too was caught up in this revolutionary atmosphere. Over 100 soviets were set up in Ireland, a topic I will discuss in my next post. Now I want to focus on the most prominent of these, the Limerick Soviet.
(Note at the time Soviet was a word used to describe a workers council or a situation where workers ran the business. It was only later the word was associated with the Soviet Union, i.e. Communist Russia. Nowadays the word used might be co-operative, industrial democracy or worker self-management.)
The soviet had its origins in the death of Robert Byrne, a prominent trade unionist in the city and member of the IRA. He had been imprisoned by the British and launched a hunger strike in protest. On the 6th of April his comrades tried to rescue him. However, the raid was unsuccessful and Byrne and a policeman were killed. There was a huge wave of sympathy for him and 10,000 people lined out for his funeral. The British authorities responded by declaring martial law. This meant it was necessary to obtain a permit from the military in order to travel around the city. The military could easily prevent Republicans from working by refusing them a permit. Due to the geography of Limerick a large working class area was outside the bounds of the city. They would have to cross two bridges to get to work, which worked out at four permit checks a day. The rate payers of the city were charged with half the cost of the extra police.
It is what happened next that is interesting. In protest a general strike was called which almost all workers supported. Roughly 14,000 workers in the city (out of a population of 38,000) stroke on the 14th of April. The strike was so successful that everything bar government offices and the banks were closed. A council was set up to manage the strike and it began rationing food. This council became referred to as a “soviet”. The soviet began issuing its own permits for travel. It allowed bakers and food suppliers to sell food from 2 to 5 everyday, though it did control prices. Milk was sold at half the regular price. Despite the fact that British rule was effectively suspended, law and order were maintained and there was no chaos or looting. Even the pubs were closed.
The Soviet began to run out of money (as no one was working). It responded by printing its own money in denominations of 1, 5 and 10 shillings. This was the most radical step yet, but it was done for pragmatic not ideological reasons. There was conflict with farmers who resented the low prices they got but needed access to the Limerick market. The coal merchants refused to sell coal but the soviet decided against seizing it themselves. They were not prepared for full-scale revolution.
At the time there was a great race to see who could be the first person to fly across the Atlantic. As a result a large number of journalists were in Limerick at the time. This meant that the soviet was reported around the world. Some members of the police and military sympathised with the soviet and a Scottish regiment had to be sent home as they let people through without checking their permits. The British offered a compromise whereby permits would be issued by employers rather than by the military, however the strikers saw this as no improvement and rejected it.
The strike was supported by trade unions around the country who sent food and supplies to the strikers. Some hoped that there would be sympathetic strikes across Ireland that would challenge British rule. However opposition was growing. The local businessmen naturally opposed the soviet and the chamber of commerce worked to end it. The middle class was opposed to any form of Bolshevism. The Catholic Church was similarly worried about the radicalism of the soviet (they knew what had happened to religion in Russia). Sinn Fein didn’t support the soviet. Many of its leadership were quite conservative and saw this as a diversion from the national struggle. The leadership of trade unions was also worried. They feared it was too much too soon and that they would over extend themselves. Under pressure from the Sinn Fein mayor of Limerick and the Bishop of Limerick, they worked to wind down the strike. On the 27th of April it was declared that all workers would return to work and apply for military permits.
Was the Limerick Soviet a victory or a defeat? It succeeded in a narrow sense in that military permits were eventually ended on the 5th of May, though this was a week after the end of the soviet. It was a success in that it was a model of workers running their own city for two weeks. However it was a defeat in that nothing more came of it. It was the largest example of workers revolt, the closest Ireland came to a Workers Republic. The revolution didn’t spread across the country. After the Limerick Soviet, nationalism, not socialism became the driving force in Ireland.
Could there have been a communist revolution in Ireland? Most sources of information on the Limerick Soviet claim there was and timid leadership betrayed the rank and file. They view it as a lost opportunity. However most of them are committed communists who always believe the time is right for a workers revolution. Irish society was primarily rural and lacking a prominent working class. The Catholic Church held enormous power and was completely opposed to anything remotely left-wing. It is hard to see how the power of the middle class, the Church, businesses, the media, Sinn Fein and the British could have been overcome. Though just because this is the way history turned out doesn’t mean it was inevitable or the only possible way it could have gone. Perhaps there was a chance of revolution; perhaps a different Ireland could have been built. Would it have been better?
(Here is a short 5 minute clip on the Limerick Soviet by RTE. Tomorrow I will continue the topic by discussing other examples of workers revolt around this time. My main source for this was “Revolution in Ireland: Popular Militancy 1917-23” by Conor Kostick, “The Story Of The Limerick Soviet” by D.R. O’Connor Lysaght and “Forgotten Revolution: Limerick Soviet 1919” by Liam Cahill.)