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'We make bread not profits' - when Irish workers took on an empire

The Limerick Soviet, established one hundred years ago today in 1919, remains an important part of Irish and labour history, writes STEVE SWEENEY

JAMES CONNOLLY’s masterpiece Labour in Irish History stressed the key role of the working class in the fight against British imperialism in Ireland as the “incorruptible inheritors of the fight for Irish freedom” with the potential to transform into a powerful revolutionary force.

It was with the working class that the emancipation of Ireland lay according to Connolly who warned that the nationalist bourgeoisie were the enemies of labour.

Connolly argued that Irish conservatives were tied to the British empire by “a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism.”

He was also clear that the issue of a united Ireland would only be solved through socialism, writing in January 1897: “If you remove the English Army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.”

Ireland caught a glimpse of revolutionary fervour during the 1916 Easter Rising, when republicans launched an insurrection against British rule and declared an independent Irish Republic. The leaders however, including Connolly, were arrested and executed.

The ravages of war had given rise to revolutionary movements across Europe with the Bolsheviks taking power and establishing Soviet rule in Russia in October 1917.

Workers across the world rallied to the cause of the Russians. The workers of Limerick were no different. In 1918 on May Day, 10,000 people rallied at an event in the city organised by Limerick Labour and Trades Council, passing a motion of support for the Russian Revolution.

One hundred years ago today, on April 15 1919, the Limerick Soviet was established when, as Connolly predicted, it was the workers who took on the might of the British empire. For nearly two weeks, Limerick Trades Council took control of the city, establishing its own currency - the soviet shilling – setting prices and even running its own civilian police force.

The events that led to the establishment of workers’ rule were triggered by the shooting of Irish Republican Army volunteer Robert “Bobby” Byrne on Sunday April 6, during a botched attempt to liberate him from a workhouse hospital.

Byrne, a trade unionist and post office clerk, was an IRA adjutant and had been handed a harsh prison sentence of 12 months’ hard labour after an unloaded pistol, a notebook and field glasses were found during a raid on his mother’s house.

He refused to recognise the British court and immediately after being jailed set about organising other prisoners in a campaign for political status. They started a hunger strike after their demands were ignored however after three weeks Byrne was transferred to hospital due to concerns over his health.

An audacious attempt to liberate him organised by local IRA units ended in disaster. A weakened Byrne was shot dead by a police officer, becoming the first volunteer to be killed in the war of independence.

His funeral took place on April 10, with an estimated 10,000 people lining the streets of Limerick as the funeral cortege made its way to Mt St Lawrence’s Cemetery.

The British authorities were nervous with Byrne’s funeral becoming a rallying point for the Irish freedom movement and they swiftly introduced an order proclaiming Limerick a special military area under the Defence of the Realm Act – effectively implementing martial law.

Roads were barricaded as a new boundary was commissioned with tanks and armoured cars positioned on all bridges and thoroughfares. Special permits were required, regulating the movement of people for work and travel outside the special zone.

Workers at the Cleeves condensed milk factory were the most affected as it was outside the special military area zone. However factory workers were well organised with the first branch of James Larkin and James Connolly’s ITGWU established in Limerick in 1917.

The IGTWU was firmly based on the masses and formed the first armed workers’ militia – the Irish Citizens Army, which had played a leading role in the 1916 Easter Rising. It resolutely opposed British imperialism and the occupation of Ireland seeing rapid growth following the Dublin lockout of 1913. 

In Limerick they were led by John Dowling, a socialist who had been told by Connolly to “Go down to the Galtees and organise workers into the union” instead of taking part in the Easter Rising.

He was joined by another organiser, Seamus O’Brien and soon they had grown the union in Limerick to around 3,000 members, including around 600 workers at the Cleeves factory.

Workers at the factory made the first move calling a strike in response to the permit system. Soon after at a meeting of the Limerick Trades and Labour Council, which represented 35 of the city’s trade unions, a resolution was passed calling for a general strike starting on Monday April 14.

As many as 15,000 walked out in protest “against the decision of the British government compelling them to procure permits in order to earn their daily bread.”

A strike committee was established with John Cronin, an experienced and skilled carpenter, elected as its chairman. On Tuesday April 15, the strike committee took control of the city, establishing what became known as the “Limerick Soviet.”

Food depots were set up and some shops reopened displaying a permit issued by the strike committee, opening and closing at appointed times. Gas, electricity and other services had permission to operate with a limited workforce. Transport and deliveries were regulated by the “soviet” which also set prices. The workers even established their own citizens’ police force with no cases coming before the courts for the duration of the Limerick Soviet. 

Newsletters were printed to keep the people of Limerick informed during the strike with the British occupying forces also issuing their own propaganda on posters across the city. 

However the Limerick Soviet’s propaganda committee responded calling on the people to endure the hardship caused by the strike “as our forefathers did before us,” promising millions of supporters from across the world.

With the city under siege the strike committee started to run out of cash. Supplies and food smuggled in from trade unions outside the city began to dwindle and the decision was taken to issue their own currency, the aforementioned soviet shilling, which would be redeemed from funds collected by sympathisers.

The workers of Limerick had not only taken on the might of the British empire but that of Irish capitalism. Their actions sent a message that another system was possible, with workers able to run their own affairs without the bosses.

For this reason it was necessary for the ruling class of Ireland and Britain to defeat the Limerick Soviet. With the intervention of the Catholic Church and the Mayor of Limerick Alphonsus O’Mara, strike leaders were pressed to accept a compromise.

Without wider support, including a refusal to spread strike action across Ireland and plans to evacuate the city, the leaders of the Limerick Soviet felt compelled to agree, bringing an end to the strike.

On April 24, the final Proclamation of the Strike Committee was issued which signalled the end of the Limerick Soviet with a return to work for those that did not require permits. British occupying forces agreed that if there was no trouble for the following week the permit system would be withdrawn.

The Limerick Soviet remains an important part of Irish and labour history. Its influence led to the establishment of Irish soviets between 1919 and 1923 including those Knocklong, Waterford, Bruree and Cork.

One hundred years on we remember the workers of Limerick who took on an empire and showed that another world is possible.

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