90th Anniversary Commemoration of the Limerick Soviet

The Limerick Soviet was established on 6th April 1919, a few months after the Dail proclaimed independence from Britain in January. We have received this report of the commemoration meeting. This report nicely accompanies our earlier account of the struggle.

Between 16th and 19th April 2009, I attended the 90th Anniversary of the Limerick Soviet. I sent fraternal greetings from the Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils. This anniversary may seem to be one of the least recognised events in Irish history but certainly could be viewed as an important epoch in workers' struggles. It is a great example of a well organised Strike by all local Trade Unions in this particular city and it could have escalated to the rest of Ireland and Britain. The commemorative events of the anniversary were launched on 6th April in City Hall by John Gilligan, the Mayor of Limerick. Along with a two week exhibition, the events continued with the launch of 4th edition of DR O’Connor Lysaght’s "Story of the Limerick Soviet" on 17th April. During the following day, there was a seminar hosted by Liam Cahill, (historian and author of "Forgotten Revolution"), Jack O'Connor (President of SIPTU, Ireland's largest Trade Union) and Mary O'Donnell (Chair of the Limerick Commemoration Committee). On the final day of 19th April, "The Workers' Walk" was organised by Dominic Haugh, a postal workers' union shop steward and local historian in which we visited the historic sites of the 1919 Strike.

In order to provide some background information, the Limerick Soviet was established on 6th April 1919, a few months after the Dail (the newly elected Irish national assembly) proclaimed independence from Britain in January. It was during this time that many people in Ireland were joining the new emerging nationalist movement, known as the Irish Republican Army. One of them, by the name of Robert Byrne, was a postal worker and active Trade Unionist in Limerick City. Like most Republicans in the county, he believed in an independent Ireland that was free for all Irish working class people from any capitalist exploitation. But one day, his employer found an excuse to dismiss him and his house was later searched by the authorities. As a pistol was found, which may have been planted there, he was arrested and mprisoned. Byrne protested against this treatment by going on hunger trike. After some time, he became unconscious and was moved St. Camilus' Hospital. A rescue attempt was made by a number of his comrades resulting in mortal casualties on both sides and the fatal wounding of Robert Byrne despite his successful escape. He died the following evening. His death was heavily mourned throughout the city as 20,000 people attended his funeral in protest. The British Government reacted angrily by imposing martial law on the city with the use of troops and tanks. Thus, the local people had to reveal their permits to the British guards on duty before going to work.

As a result, the local Trade Unions resorted to Strike action and set up a Strike Committee known by the Press as the Limerick Soviet. The Strike Committee certainly lived up to this name as a "workers' council" according to its Russian equivalent. The British forces attempted to prevent any movement in or out of the city and military barricades were placed on Thomond and what is now named Sarsfield Bridge. The city was under siege and food had to be smuggled across the Shannon from County Clare. Hearses coming from the 'City Home' did not always contain corpses! For two weeks Limerick became 'self ruled.' The workers, through its organisations, ran the city. Not only did they organise their own food rations but they were later to print their own paper currency as finances were becoming short. Soon, the Limerick Soviet became well known at international level. It is interesting to know that a Scottish regiment was very sympathetic by allowing many local workers to pass without showing their permits. The British Government sent this regiment home in order to replace them with a more repressive one.

But the Strike was set to escalate at national level. Already, other Irish Trade Union Councils were sending supplies to their comrades in Limerick and even Irish labourers in Britain were Striking in support. But by the end of mid April, the Church and the British led TUC waned in support. It was difficult for the people of Limerick to sustain this struggle on their own. After much heated negotiation with the Irish representatives of the TUC, it was agreed that British Martial Law would be lifted in return for ending the Strike. A few days after the people of Limerick returned to work, the British troops were withdrawn. No doubt, this industrial action was a great success at local level, but an ideal opportunity for an international Strike within Britain and Ireland was lost.

However, the Limerick Soviet was to be the first of many struggles in the county for the next few years. More Strikes were to follow with the establisment of other local Soviets by the farm labourers and dairy workers of Limerick County. Also, there were many communists in the Limerick IRA that played a prominent role in the War of Irish Independence (1919 to 1921) and the Civil War (1922 to 1923). But such events in Limerick, sadly, play a less recognised part in Irish history and communism did not become a respectable ideology here, unlike certain countries in Europe.

I would like to thank the Limerick Commemoration Committee and the Trades Union Council for promoting this important anniversary. References can be made to the two books, "Forgotten Revolution" and "The story of the Limerick Soviet" on the website: www.limericksoviet90.com In reference to the Seminar of 18th April, Jack O'Connor denounced the employers for cutting jobs, wages and even allowing loss of pensions. Like Britain, the Republic of Ireland is undergoing a deep recession with more unemploment and rising crime. It should not be forgotten that a Council of the Isles (or British - Irish Council) was established under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Yet, there seems to be no sign of British and Irish Trade Unions being provided with a major role on his council in defending workers' rights. It is important that we build reater links between the Trade Unions of these two nations in protecting our workers against global capitalism.