The Limerick soviet of 1919

Aileen O'Carroll 1994

Ireland 1919: The Labour Party and Sinn Fein

Limerick: Robert Byrne, arrest, funeral , inquest, start of strike

The strike that was to become the Limerick Soviet was precipaitated by the shooting dead of Robert Byrne a republican and Trade Unionist.

Byrne had worked as a telephonist in the General Post Office in Limerick. In Janurary 1919 he lost his job; He was dismissed for attending the funeral of a Limerick Volunteer (John Daly). Within days his mothers house was raided for arms. Byrne was arrested and sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment with hard labour for pocession of a revolver and ammunition.

Public meeting was held

Limerick Trade council (Byrnewas a delegate representing post office clerks) adopted a resolution and distrubuted it throughout Limerick in leaflet form

"That we the members of Limerick Trades and Labour Council, assembled in conference, protest most emphatically against the treatment melted out to the political prisoners at present confined in LimerickCounty Jail, and view with grave alarm the inactivity of the visiting Justicies and Medical officer"

Three weeks into the hunger strile, the prison authirities, worried about Byrnes condition moved him to No. 1 ward of the Limerick Workhouse.

The Limerick IRA senced and oppertuinity to boost moral and embarass the authorities decided to rescue Byrne.

24 IRA men were to enter the ward, pretenting to be visitors and a covering party of 15 were to remain in the corridors and grounds. Only one or two of hte party were armed. The driver had to leave Limerick urgenlty and at the last minute a mourning coach was procured from a local undertaker, with a herse inside ready with clothes and a disguise for Byrne.

Several shots were fired in the rescue attempt, leaving an RIC constable dead, and Byrne mortally wounded. He was brought to a labourers cottage near Meelick in Co. Clare and later that evening he died.

The authorities kept close watch on the cottage and when Mrs Byrne , his mother and four other women arrived she was arrested as was John Ryans wife, the owner of the HOuse, a servent boy and servent girl. In the suceeding weeks they were realised.

As a mark of respect the general meeting of Limerick trades council ajourned after the minutes were read. They passed the following resolution;

"That a vote of condolence be sent to Mrs Byrne onthe death of her son, who for the cause of self-determination as all Irishmen are entitled to, was murdered by the minions of English Tyranny here in our midst"

Military area declared

On the monday morning following the shooting, most of Limerick city and a part of the county were declared a Special Military Area under the Defence of the Realm Act.

The shannon was designated the nothern boarder of the Special Militatily area, with the result that the large working class area of Thomondgate was cut off from the rest of the city. Workers from there would have to go through military checks four times a day as they went to and from there work. Between 5,000 and 6,000 people were affected by the restriction. Furthermore two of the cities largest factories Cleeves condensed milk and butter factory (employing 600 workers) and Walkers Distillery were also cut off from the rest of the city. This also meant that the supply of milk to the city, mostly from Cleeves would be severly disrupted.

People needing permits had to report to the offices of the military commander with a letter from there local RIC sergeant certifgying that there loyality to the crown was not in doubte. Known Republicans therefore didn't get permits and so couldn't get to work.

In addition people could be isolated and taken into custody on mere suspision of having committed a crime.

To add further insult to injury local rate payers were leveled with half the cost of sending the extra police into the area.

Most of the mourners at Byrnes funeral were turned back a mile outside town.

On the Sat before the strike started the Cleeves workers rejected an offer by the authorities to supply them with permits for the comming week. Some people suggested later that the decision of the Cleeve workers to strike from monday forced the Trade Councils hand. A confidential police report from the time said the strike had its originns among a number of Sinn Fein workers at the factory.

On Sunday, palm sunday, delegates from the 35 unions affiliated to the Trades council met to consider the situation. After 12 hours of discussion, the council unanimously decided to call a general strike of all Limerick workers against the proclaimation of the city as a special military area. At a sympathic printing works, printers worked round the night on a strike proclaimation. Within in two hours the cities walls were covered with the notice. John Cronin a delegate from the Amaagated Society of Carpenters was elected chair of the strike comittee. The strikers also elected subcommittees to take charge of propaganda, finance, food and vigilance- an early indication, that they expected a long, rather than a short strike.

All out; Start of the Strike

Despite its sudden calling, almost all workers stayed out and pratically every branch of industry stoped and all places of business were closed. Even the pubs remained closed.

To prevent loss of pershiable goods, certain industries such as the bacon and condensed meat factories were allowed remain open.

Workers from the Cleeves factory joined by Bakers and Butchers assistants along with thousands of other workers paraded through the streets. In all about 14,000 workers were out.

Pickets visited all the hotels and told them to close down, restuartants also were closed. Though many cinema's were allowed to open, with notices on their doors "open by authority of the Strike committee".

Anybody needing to buy clothes had to get a special permit from the revelaant sub-commitee

Goods for Limerick were not dispatched from the North Wall in Dubin nor accepted in Knightsbridge, by the members of the ITGWU once it became known that they would not be handled in Limerick.

Feeding the Town

The first problem facing the strikers was how to feed Limericks 38,000 inhabitants. The committee sat in secession all of monday organising food distrubution. The committee was sivided into two sections, onw to recieve food and one to deliver it. Hundreds of special permits were issued allowing shops to open and supply foodstuffs between 2 and 5 in the afternood. In the evening, in a major assertation of its authority, the strike committee ordered the bakers to return to work. In reporting this, the Irish Times first referred to the strike commitee as the local 'soviet'.

The price of food was strictly controlled. Posters were issued showing a list of retail prices for essential foodstuffs. Picketes wearing distinctive badges patrolled the streets ensuring that no shops opened without permision and those that were allowed open weren't overcrowded.

No deliveries of bread were allowed to shops or homes, people had to buy direct from the backeries. Throughout the soviet the supply of bread was essential. To ensure this the soviet gave permission for the unloading of 7,000 tonnes of Canadian grain at the docks.

The food problems offered the first oppertunity for those who sympathised with the strike to give pratical help. Food depots were set up in Thomonddate because it was outside the controlled area. A Catholic priest, Fr Kennedy of Ennis helped to organise farmers in the south east of the country to organise farmers to supply food to Limerick. Indeed throughout the Soviet, the church supported efforts to supply food. At Sunday masses in the diocese of Killaloe, the priests appealed for help for Limerick, saying they did so with the santion and approval of the Bishop. The response included a gift of 20 tonnes of potatoes.

Clare farmers sent potatoes, milk, buter, tea and sugar which were sold at considerably below the market price. Milk was sold at 4 pence a quart, instead of the usual 7 pence.

Not all farmers were happy to donate food in support of a Trade union strike, however, since many had no other outlets available to them, and since on occasion the strike committee requesioned the food, the had little choice but to make a patriotic virtue out of necessity. It would seem there was also a certain amount of organistation by Sinn Fein and their supporters.

Food was also smuggled in on boats with muffled oars. Apparently the funeral herses from the Union Hospital outside the corden did not always contain coffins!!


The soviet had more problems when dealing with the supply of fuel. The coal merchants wre hostile and refused to open their yards.


While the majority of Trade Unions were prepared to pay strike pay, one key trade union, the National Union of Railwaymen made clear it would not. By the end of the first week, though outside food supplys were forthcoming, money was not.

The soviet then decided to print its own money which was acceped by approved shops. A sub committee of the propaganda group, constisting mainly of accountants from the large firms oversaw their production.

Transport and production were also controlled; doctors getting car permits when necessary, all other cars were ofderedoff the streets by the workers patrols.

An american army officer arriving in Limerick had to appear before the permits committee inorder to get a lift to visit relatives outside limerick, following this he said,

"I guess it is some puzzle to know who rules these parts. You have to get a military permit to get in and be brought before a committee to get a permit to leave."

In all the soviet was remarkable effective in feeding and regulating the 38,000 citizens of Limerick. Not a single case of looting was reported, nor did a single court case up for hearing at the petty secessions.

The Worlds Press rough notes

Major J C P Wood

flying the atlantic, east to west

Daily Mail, £1000

Foreign journalists, american cable station, valentia island, avoid censorship

organised press conferences permits

Suggested settlement

On thursday the British offered a compromise; they would allow employers to issue permits. Agreement had been got behind the scenes with the employers, therefore, the proposal divided the previously united communty into boss and worker. The general seemed to be trying to the employers as intermediaires, as pressure points in an attempt to force an end to the problem.

The offer was of course completly unacceptable, as it gave the employer the right to decide who was fit to enter the city or not.

confrontation rough notes

Caherdavin heights, 1,000 people, 7ral hours, returned to Sarsfield Bridge, blank shot fired, military reenforcements sent out, leaders demand and refused entry without permits, passive resistance, 50 police reenforced the bridge, 1000's came to watch the confrontation, \

After midnight some crossed in boat, some spent night on bridge, some in working class homes, some went to a dance in St Munchin's Temperance Hall, Clare farmers brought food, breakfast cooked by Thomondgate residents.

200 men and women marched to Long pavement railway station, boarded passanger train for Limerick. On train, military officers demanded permits, demanded doors be locked, rebel songs, locked nuns and priests in to,

suddenly all the doors on the offside of train were opened, someone had got keys, between 200 and 300 men and women ran past the sole ticket collecter at the main gate and to freedom.

Soldiers& RIC rough notes

different attitude to soliders and to RIC, some military saluted strike leaders when they saw them, so soon after WWI, conscripts held strong trade union and socialist views

Bosses and clergy

Supported by small business and shop keepers some of which continued to pay strikers wages, resented by larger firms who met continously to complain of the damage the strike was doing to them.

The Church

Initial church support for the strike.

worried about dail expressions of approval for soviet led governments in Russia and Hungary

Trade Union Congress and National Strike

Meetings with Trade Union congress and Dail. Dail did not encourage more wide spread trade union action. It's likely they would not have been happy to hand the leadership of the millitant part of the independance struggle to the Trade unions. Outwardly the TUC supported the strike, inwardly, knowing they wouldn't have had the backing of Sinn Fein for any excelation they began looking for some way to wind the strike down and save face.

Johnson a rep fromTrade Union congress arrived on Day 3 of strike and seemed to commit the to a national stoppage in support of Limerick. This is certainly what the strike committee expected to happen.

The executative inself arrived down a week later, 9 days into the strike and went into immediated negnociations with the strike committee.

Some congress leaders claimed their constitution did not give them the power to call a national strike, however as mentioned above there objections went beyond constitutional quibbles. The consquences of a national strike could provoke a revolutionary conflict with the British State. Not only could they not count on the support of the Dail, Sinn Fein and the IRA, but they also doubted the committement their own rank and rile would have to such an undertaking. Many members of the labour party owned their first alligence to Sinn Fein. Trade Unions in the North would definitly oppose the strike and there was doubte as to how trade unionists and socialists wuld react to such a development.

British Unions

Many of the imprtant unions, such as the National Union of Railwaymen were based in Britain. The strike had already come in for critisism from English Trade Unionists who felt it was too political. In Ireland, Syndicalist ideas had influence in the trade union movement. Trade unions were seen to be a source of political power. In Britain it was felt that politics should be left to political parties, namely the Labour party, and trade union activiety should only be around economic issures. The head of the British Trade Union congress issued a statement that;

Their Irish branchs could not be allowed to strike in Ireland, because they were opposedto the use of trade union machinery for political ends.

Instead they decided to ask the Labour party to raise the issue i parliament and enlist the support of Liberal and other MPs for a demand that the government deal with the Irish question on lines likely to remove the necessity for maintaining martial law in Limerick.

The refusal of the British trade unions to support strike action, was the final death blow to the idea of a national strike.

However there was specualtion that if an unauthorised stoppage went ahead there would be sympathy strikes by Irish emigrants living in Britain.

(Secretary of ILP & TUC reported, August 1919 that Irish workers on the Tyneside and Clydeside wanted to organise and be affialiated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions)

Plan to evacuate Limerick

The congress leaders had an alternative plan to embarass the authorities by evacuating the city. The strike committee flatly rejected this. What ever the chance of feeding people in Limerick, difficulties of having to house and transport them to another location would have been overwhelming. Furthermore, it was unlikely that the bosses and factory owners could be convinced to leave there property.

When the church heard of the plans to evacuate the city, it turned against the strike. The day after the TUC executative arrived they were presented with a letter from the Bishop and the Mayor calling on them to end the strike. The authorities repeated there earlier offer of allowing employees and traders to permits to their workers and customers. The only further concession was that passes would not be checked when people were going to and from meals.

Several thousand people gathered outside the Mechanics Institute where they were meeting once they heard what was happening.

They made an anouncement where by those workers who could resume work without needing permits should do so. Other workers should stay on strike and there would be a special congress to discuss further developments. The TUC were never serious about holding a Special Congress and it was never heard.

After 14 days the soviet ended as quicky as it had began.


PESP, PNR,PCW, industrial relations act

One of the great "What might have beens of History" but also we should celebrate it for what it was. One of the fundamental beliefs that of socialism, one often forgotten or dismissed by Lenninist groups, is a belief in the creative energy of the working class. That we have the ability to control and run society in our interests.

Traditional left wing analysis is that

Knew what they were fighting against, but not how much they could fighting for.

Most revolutions begin with short term demands and excelate.

Reporting of strike by the Irish Time and the Independant, p66