Einde O’Callaghan


All power to ...

(July 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.133, July/August 1990, pp.28-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.

The Limerick Soviet
Liam Cahill
O’Brien Press £14.95

ON MONDAY, 14 April 1919, Limerick Trades Council called a general strike.

Within 24 hours 14,000 workers had joined the strike and the ‘Limerick Soviet’ was established. For two weeks the city’s strike committee regulated prices, controlled food distribution, published its own newspaper and printed its own currency.

At this time British control of Ireland was already being challenged by the recently established Dáil Eireann – the separatist Republican parliament in Dublin – and by guerrilla war in the countryside, particularly in the South and South-West in the neighbourhood of Limerick.

The Limerick Soviet was organised labour’s first intervention into the Irish War of Independence. During the previous two years organised labour had become a potent force in Limerick particularly after the Irish Transport & General Workers Union had organised the unskilled workers. The Trades Council, although originally an organisation primarily for skilled workers, had become a focus for solidarity action.

Links between the trade unions, particularly the ITGWU, and Sinn Fein were very close. These links were personified by Robert Byrne. He was a Adjutant of the Second Limerick Brigade of the IRA, President of the Limerick branch of the Post Office Clerks Association and a member of the Trades Council. It was his arrest on arms charges, his hunger strike and his death during a rescue attempt that sparked off the events.

The death of a policeman also killed during the attempted rescue led the British military to declare martial law. A cordon was placed around the city and a military pass required to enter or leave. As most workplaces were outside the cordon workers had to obtain a pass to go to work. And since most workers went home at lunchtime it meant being checked four times a day.

In response the Trades Council called a general strike and elected a strike committee. Within days the committee was known to all as the Soviet.

The first task of the Soviet was to organise food supplies for the 38,000 inhabitants. Shop opening times were strictly regulated, prices were monitored, links were formed with farmers in the surrounding countryside and the pubs were shut for the duration.

The strength and determination of the strike was tested within a few days. On the Thursday the military commander proposed to issue blocks of passes to the employers to distribute to their workers. But the workers rejected this out of hand because it would give the bosses power to decide who could have a pass or not.

Up to this stage the employers, particularly Nationalist employers, had reluctantly acquiesced to the protest. But of course they were more worried about their profits than political principles and so started to seek a compromise. Their opportunity came with the arrival of the national executive of the Irish Labour Party and TUC (still one organisation at the time) on the tenth day of the strike.

Initially they appeared to commit themselves to a national stoppage in support of Limerick but pulled back from this as it would imply an open challenge for state power. Instead they proposed complete evacuation of the city leaving an empty shell in the hands of the military! Not surprisingly the Soviet rejected this lunacy.

Without spreading their action to other cities the committee was forced to retreat. Faced with complete isolation it decided to return to work without any concessions but also undefeated on Monday 28 April.

This episode of Irish history has largely been ignored by historians. Before this book only a slim pamphlet and a few articles have told the tale. This book is obviously a labour of love. It describes the progress of the strike through interviews, memoirs, union minutes and official documents. Cahill beautifully tells a story that deserves a wider audience.

The strike was caused by a combination of political and social factors arising out of the developing national liberation struggle. The working class of Limerick intervened as an independent force in this struggle using working class methods. This was objectively a rejection of the Republicans’ ‘Labour must wait’ strategy.

But lacking an independent working class revolutionary leadership to provide a more general political strategy, reformist trade union officials took the lead and betrayed the workers.

Leadership of the national struggle was ceded to the Repubicans as a result.

A historic opportunity to place the working class in the leadership of the national struggle was irretrievably lost. And Cahill shows this clearly.

One minor criticism. His attachment to the idea that there are two nations in Ireland leads him to underestimate the potential for change of the Protestant working class in the North East. (He insists on referring to them as the Unionist working class.)

Although he mentions the month long engineering strike for the 44 hour week in Belfast during January 1919, which was ignored by the Republicans and was only ended by military occupation of the city, he seems to assume that political ideas are fixed and unchanging. Drawing on various resolutions passed by union bodies in the North East later during the summer he deduces that there would have been no support there for Limerick.

But the same British troops enforced martial law in Limerick as had occupied Belfast. Given a clear working class lead it was by no means inevitable that Protestant workers would remain Unionists.

Last updated on 24.06.2010