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Opinion: The Limerick Soviet of 1919 is part of a hidden history of Ireland

This battle was part of a momentous ‘Game of Thrones’ to decide who would rule Ireland: British imperialism, Irish capitalism or the working class, writes Cian Prendiville.

Cian Prendiville

TANKS ON THE streets of Limerick. Workers on strike. A soviet is declared.

The workers control prices and production. The workers even have their own police force and currency.

It sounds like some fantasy. But this is actually our history. A history hidden from us by those who would prefer we forget that workers ran Limerick without the bosses, the clergy or the politicians telling them what to do.

This battle was part of a momentous ‘Game of Thrones’ to decide who would rule Ireland: British imperialism, Irish capitalism or the working class. There are no dragons in this captivating saga, but there are heroes and villains, tragedy and betrayal.

The Workers’ Rising

In July 1917 Limerick got it’s first ever branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) the radical trade union set up by Jim Larkin and James Connolly.

The union grew rapidly to 3,000 members in the city, organising workers that other unions had ignored: the lower paid, unskilled, precarious and women workers.

There was a growing wave of revolutions right across Europe, from Russia to Germany, Italy to Scotland.

In Limerick’s Markets Field, a 10,000 strong crowd passed a motion of solidarity with the Russian revolution on May Day 1918.

Soon after Sean Dowling, a close friend and ally of Connolly, came to the Mid-West as an ITGWU organiser.

Dowling was a Marxist and was the organiser of the workers in the Cleeves factory, who were the first to call a strike in April 1919.

The trigger for this was the decision of the British military to impose martial law in Limerick following a massive funeral for IRA member Bobby Byrne.

Byrne had been imprisoned for possession of a gun and died as part of an attempt to break him free. His funeral became a rallying point, and in response, the British set up check-points which meant workers at Cleeves and other factories had to get permits just to get to work.

On April 13th Dowling attended a meeting of all the trade unions in Limerick where they agreed to follow the example of the Cleeves workers, and call a general strike.”

A new ‘Boss’ in Town

The general strike saw the whole city come to a standstill.

Factories, pubs and shops were closed. The only things open on the first day was the printers making posters for the strike, and the Trade Union headquarters where the trade union leaders, now termed the ‘Limerick Soviet’ met.

(The word ‘soviet’ is Russian for committee. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, workers and farmers set up ‘soviets’ in their factories, cities and villages. In Ireland thereafter when workers committees formed and took over responsibility for running workplaces or towns, they were known as soviets.)

An indefinite general strike poses the question of power – who runs society?

Clearly the bosses and the British military weren’t able to run things, instead, the workers began to run the city themselves, through the ‘Soviet’ and special sub-committees they set up.

A food sub-committee ordered grain in the docks to be unloaded, and the bakeries to make bread. Shops were reopened with prices and opening times set by the Soviet.

Revolution betrayed

A week into the strike, the Limerick workers had fought the British state and the Irish bosses to a stalemate. The army and the RIC didn’t dare leave their barracks. But they also refused to lift martial law.

The hope had been that the trade unions nationally would organise solidarity action with Limerick to pile extra pressure on. But that decision rested with the national leaders of the unions and the Labour Party.

Far from being revolutionaries like Dowling, these leaders had a very different vision. They were people like William O’Brien who had been building a close relationship with the leaders of Sinn Fein, trying to build a partnership with a new Sinn Fein government.

When they talked to the Sinn Fein leaders, they were quickly told to wrap up the Soviet. Sinn Fein didn’t like the British army, but they feared the working class in control even more.

So, the national union leaders said they wouldn’t support escalating the dispute outside Limerick, taking the wind out of the sails of the Soviet. The Sinn Fein Mayor, Bishop and the Chamber of Commerce saw their opportunity and proposed a ‘compromise’.

Workers were to go back to work immediately, and if they behaved themselves martial law would be withdrawn a week later.

The Road Not Taken

Too often Irish History from 1916 to 1923 is presented as a straightforward march from the Easter Rising, to the War of Independence, Treaty, Partition and Civil War. The choice, we are told was British domination, or rule by Irish bosses backed up by the clergy.

This ignores the idea of a Workers’ Republic, that would overthrow not just imperialism, but capitalism itself. This is an idea that inspired not just Connolly and Dowling, but others too across Ireland, including many Protestant workers in Belfast. It was an idea which perhaps could have united the working class and avoided not just partition and sectarianism but helped to inspire similar revolts in Britain and across Europe.

Tragically, this was the road not taken. It was the O’Briens, who won the leadership of the unions and the Labour Party. And they ensured that rather than the workers’ movement leading the Irish Revolution, it was left to Sinn Fein.

Limerick Soviet 2.0

Those who wish to make a change today must study history, or be doomed to repeat its mistakes. Across the globe, there is a rising movement against inequality, exploitation and oppression.

Once again in these movements, the idea of socialism has gained an echo. Socialists have been at the forefront of organising the unorganised, intervening in every struggle against oppression.

Now, as 100 years ago, the workers’ movement should take the lead in these movements, and unify all the oppressed in a socialist programme, as only it can.

To do that we must learn the lesson of the Limerick Soviet. The O’Brien’s of today, the conciliators and careerists, cannot be left in charge of the trade union and labour movement.

The Dowlings of the coming battles cannot be left isolated, and unconnected, we must build revolutionary organisations, linked together into a national and international party, to study our history and develop our theory, and ensure that Limerick Soviet 2.0 succeeds and spreads.

To quote James Connolly.

Our demands are moderate: we only want the earth

Cian Prendiville is an activist in Limerick, a member of the Socialist Party and the Limerick Soviet Centenary Committee.

He has just released a 5-part documentary podcast ‘Bottom Dog – The Story of the Limerick Soviet’ is available now on limericksoviet.ie and all podcast apps.

The podcast tells the story of the Limerick Soviet through interviews, re-enactments and dramatisation.

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Cian Prendiville

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