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The Limerick Soviet 1919
Define and Justify:
The proposed subject of this study is the Limerick Soviet 1919. Soviets are generally associated with the USSR but in Ireland during the years 1919 to 1922 there were many soviets mainly in Munster. Of these the Limerick Soviet is the most famous.
1. To further my knowledge and understanding of the Limerick Soviet and to discover how the British Military authorities responded to this act of defiance.
2. To develop research skills which I have not used previously.
3. How Limerick managed while under Martial Law.
4. Whether the Limerick Soviet became a major national or international news line.
The intended approach:
I intend to make use of the internet as there is a on-line edition of Liam Cahill’s book ‘Forgotten Revolution – The Limerick Soviet 1919′ which I plan to use as my main source. This book is currently out of print.
I plan on studying newspapers that were published during the period of the 1919 Limerick Soviet in order to see the extent of how the media portrayed the Limerick Soviet. These are available on microfilm in the University of Limerick.
I intend to take notes and write up a basic summary of the main events of the 1919 Limerick Soviet.
Cahill, Liam, Forgotten Revolution – The Limerick Soviet 1919, (Dublin,1990) [available online at: http://www.limericksoviet.com/%5D
‘The Workers Bulletin’ 19 April 1919, 21 April 1919, 23 April 1919
Russell, Ruth, What’s the matter with Ireland (New York, 1920) [available online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/12033%5D
Evaluation of Sources
Source 1: Liam Cahill’s book is a secondary source as it was first published in 1990. The book is currently out of print but is available on the internet. It gave me a significant amount of information. At times I found it gave too much information as it contained a huge amount of detail. The book is very well laid out with clearly defined chapters though at times I found it difficult to understand the language.
Source 2: The Strike Committee issued their own newspaper. This paper was used to rally support for the strike in the city and give information about things that were happening related to the strike. As a primary source, this gives a useful insight into the rationale behind the strike and the aims and tactics of the strikers. However, this source is obviously biased as it does not present any voices of those opposed to the strike. As propaganda, it is clear, effective and lively.
Source 3: Ruth Russell was a journalist with the Chicago Herald who was touring Ireland and writing about her experiences. She happened to be visiting Limerick during the course of the Limerick Soviet. The book includes interviews she conducted with participants in the Soviet like John Cronin, chairman of the Soviet Committee. The book gives an insight into Ireland from an outsiders perspective. The book contained a lot of information that was not relevant to the Limerick Soviet but the Chapters dedicated to my research topic were done in great detail and helped me to understand the happenings during the strike. This book is a primary source and I would regard it as being unbiased in its reporting of the events of the Limerick Soviet.
April 1919 saw one of the most momentous events in the history of trade unions in Ireland. On the 11th of April British Military Authorities imposed Martial Law on Limerick City in response to the reaction, by the workers of Limerick, to the death of Robert Byrne, a leading trade union and republican activist in the city. As a result of the imposition of Martial Law, the Limerick United Trade and Labour council (LUTLC) called a general strike which received widespread support from the city’s workers. The general strike organised by the LUTLC became known as the Limerick Soviet. During the course of the next 11 days the Soviet Committee ran all the important aspects of the city, including transportation and food supply. The Limerick Soviet appealed for support from the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILPTUC). When representatives of the ILPTUC visited Limerick they gave the clear impression that a nationwide general strike would be called in support of the workers. But instead of calling a general strike, the ILPTUC proposed the evacuation of Limerick City by its workers and their families. This proposal was rejected out of hand by the soviet strike committee and, realising the soviet couldn’t be sustained indefinitely they called off the strike on April 25th. This essay will look at the events to the run up to and during the Limerick Soviet.
Cahill outlined how Robert Byrne had been on hunger strike in Limerick prison for three weeks when he was moved to the Limerick Union Infirmary during the third week in March 1919 (1). A few days later the local IRA movement attempted to rescue Byrne. During the course of the rescue a gun battle broke out between the IRA unit and the RIC members guarding Byrne, resulting in the death of an RIC constable and leaving Robert Byrne fatally wounded.
An estimated ten thousand people attended the removal of Byrne’s body to Saint John’s Cathedral in Limerick. The British Authorities saw this as an act of defiance and so on Friday the 11th April, a large area of Limerick was placed under martial law. There was a boundary (see map) around areas of Limerick and anyone who wished to enter or exit this area could only do so if they carried permits which were issued by the British Military Authorities in the city. In response to the imposition of work permits, the workers in the Condensed Milk factory in Lansdowne, on the north side of the city, went on strike. The following day a meeting of the LUTLC called a general strike against the requirements to carry permits.
The LUTLC transformed itself into the Strike Committee and the strike almost immediately became known as the Limerick Soviet. John Cronin (President of the LUTLC) became chairman of the strike committee. Immediately it took over a printing press in Cornmarket Row, preparing placards explaining the strike and had them posted all over Limerick. This was the first of many different publications to take place over the next fortnight. Permits, food price lists, proclamations and a Strike bulletin were also published. Almost all of the workers went on strike with the exception of the banks and the post office.
In response to worries about food shortages, during the first few days of the strike, panic buying occurred. The Strike Committee organised for food to be smuggled from the surrounding countryside into the city by boat across the River Shannon. It also ordered butchers and bakers assistants to return to work. These measures ensured the continuity of food supplies and the distribution of food and prices were controlled and regulated by the strike committee.
During the month of April a large number of foreign reporters were in Limerick reporting on an attempted transatlantic flight from the USA to Ireland by a Major J.C.P Wood. As a result, The Limerick Soviet came to international attention with reports being carried in European and American newspapers. The Strike Committee actively supported the international media in publicising the strike.
After four days Brigadier General Griffin, commander of the British troops in the city, attempted to reach a compromise with the workers. Following a meeting with Limerick Chamber of Commerce, he proposed that the employers of the city rather than the military authorities issue the permits to the city’s workers. This compromise represented a considerable climb-down by the British authorities but the proposal was dismissed by Strike Committee (2).
By end of the first week the workers were in complete control of the city. No vehicles were allowed travel on the streets of Limerick without the expressed permission of the Strike Committee. Gas, electricity, water and food supplies were organised by sub committees under the guidance of the Strike Committee. The Strike Committee met almost in constant session and meetings of workers in different economic sectors occurred regularly to help ensure the smooth running of the strike (3).
The strike was also having an impact on some of the troops that made up the military cordon around the city. American journalist Ruth Russell spoke about how one detachment of Scottish troops was withdrawn after showing too much sympathy for the striking workers (4).
During the course of the strike the Strike Committee appealed to the ILPTUC for support. Liam Cahill wrote about how Tom Johnson, Treasurer of Congress was sent from Dublin to Limerick by the ILPTUC executive and gave the clear impression that a nationwide general strike would be called. The Strike Committee newspaper, The Workers Bulletin, which was distributed throughout the city publicised the fact that a major escalation was imminent (5). However, instead of calling a general strike, the ILPTUC proposed the evacuation of Limerick by the workers and their families. This proposal was dismissed out of hand by the Strike Committee.
With the failure of the ILPTUC to call a general strike, the ending of the Limerick Soviet was inevitable. The workers in Limerick realised that they couldn’t sustain the Soviet indefinitely. After a day long meeting on the 25th April the Strike Committee called off the strike and instructed anyone who did not need a permit should return to work immediately. Many workers particularly members of the ITGWU opposed the calling off of the strike and went around the city ripping down posters that called for the immediate return to work and burnt them.
Cahill outlines how at the beginning of the strike many Republicans supported the action of the workers on the basis that it was a strike against the British military authorities. By the end of the strike Republicans were criticising the Strike Committee for calling off the strike. Religious leaders in Limerick criticised the imposition of permits and the introduction of martial law without giving direct support to the Limerick Soviet. When the strike ended they openly criticised the Strike Committee for going on strike without consulting them (6).
The Limerick Soviet demonstrated the growing strength of the trade union movement. Membership of trade unions in Limerick increased dramatically between 1916 and 1919. For 11 days in April 1919 the workers of Limerick controlled all aspects of social, political and economic life in the city. The strike ended following a decision by the ILPTUC not to call a nationwide general strike in support of the Limerick Soviet. However, this does not mean that the Limerick Soviet should be regarded as a failure. Within a week the British Military Authorities had lifted martial law and dropped the need for workers to carry permits in and out of the city.
Review of Research Process
The first thing I did while researching my project was to look for sources as a result of that I joined my local library. That proved unsuccessful as they had no books or articles relating to my research topic. However during my research on-line I found many sources which referred to the Limerick Soviet. Liam Cahill’s book ‘Forgotten Revolution- The Limerick Soviet’ was free on the internet and therefore I didn’t have to obtain a copy. Although all the newspaper articles and Cahill’s book were helpful I was disappointed that there is only one book written specifically on the subject. After I had all my information and had my outline plan proceeded to write my extended essay. While researching the Limerick Soviet I have gained experience in researching skills. It gave me an insight into the meaning of historical phrases that I did not previously understand i.e. Martial Law. Overall form my project I have gained a greater understanding of the Limerick Soviet, the role of the British Military Authorities and gave me a greater insight into the running of workers unions such as the ITGWU in Ireland.