A little-known and oft-overlooked historical example of workers’ organization is that of the Limerick Soviet in Ireland. In response to the British militarist siege of the city of Limerick in 1919, trade unions organized their own form of local governance in which they were the masters of political and economic life. From April 15th to the 17th, the Soviet held a high degree of authority within the confines of the city. We will take a look at how the Limerick Soviet came about, and what its strengths and weaknesses were. This example of workers’ self-organization was the first and only show of labor actively challenging, and in some ways, outperforming Sinn Fein for the leadership of the Irish independence movement.
The Irish War of Independence began in 1919 as the Irish Republic Army, backed by Sinn Fein, began a guerrilla war against British-occupied North Ireland. Robert Bryne, a leading Sinn Fein and IRA figurehead and activist of the Post Office Union, had been arrested and was undergoing treatment at a hospital for the after effects of a hunger strike. As such, the IRA began a mission to liberate Robert. The liberation attempt was marked by the fatal wounding of Constable Martin O’Brien, as well as the injury of another policeman.
Although the rescue attempt was initially successful, Robert Byrne would later die from his wounds he sustained during the escape later that evening. His funeral, attended by tens of thousands of mourners and sympathizers all across the country, fastened the British government’s suspicions of the prospect of an Irish revolution. Utilizing extensive air, railway, road, and waterway transportation, the city of Limerick is conveniently located in a geographic area surrounded by transport mechanisms. In the words of the infamous Irish Republican Socialist James Connolly:
“Should it come to a test in Ireland….between those who stood for the Irish Nation and those who stood for foreign rule, the greatest civil asset in the hand of the Irish Nation for use in the struggle would be the control of the Irish docks, shipping, railways and production by unions that gave sole allegiance to Ireland.” 
As a response, the British government declared the city to be under Martial Law on April 9, and was to be supervised by the stationed military presence within the city of Limerick. As of April 15, all residents who wished to leave or enter the city were required to have on hand an IRC paper. To protest this act of aggression, a general strike was called by the Limerick Trades and Labor Council on April 13th, of which Robert Bryne had originally been a delegate. The management of the strike was handled by a committee elected by the Trades and Labor Council, which principally declared itself to be a Soviet. John Cronin, the Chairman of this worker-elected organization earned the title of “father of the Baby Soviet” .
“We, as organised workers refuse to ask them for permits to earn our daily bread and this strike is a protest against their action”- Robert Bryne, Chairman of the Limerick Soviet Strike Committee .
If the Soviet wished to survive, it first and foremost had to be able to supply the city’s residents with food. Two committees were established: one to receive food and one to distribute it. Food stores were open from 2:00pm to 5:00pm. Although the Soviet urged bakers to produce their goods, they were restricted from delivering their goods to homes or shops. Their goods were to be sold directly to the public . A Special Strike committee was established after the first week of the strike, which began running its own newspaper, as well as going so far as to print its own currency. However, private property was left untouched so long as the merchants and businesses agreed to follow the Soviet’s instructions and regulations. A list of shopkeepers that were prepared to accept the Soviet’s currency was drawn up, utilizing a sort of voucher system that the shopkeepers were allowed to redeem at a later date . They agreed to this policy over the short period of the strike, but this relationship would likely not be able to be maintained for long. Had the Soviet lasted for many months, trade moving in and out of the city would be hindered by the usage of two separate systems of currency. The dictates of the worker-controlled Soviet were running parallel to the interests of the property owners, as it only could. Had these antagonisms been maintained for too long, class warfare could break out not only within, but outside the city as well.
After two weeks of a general strike, The Sinn Fein affiliated Mayor of Limerick, Alphonsus O’Mara and the local Catholic Bishop Dennis Hallinan called for the strike to end as the city of Limerick’s restrictions on movement were revoked. On April 27, the Strike Committee declared the strike to be over. Although Sinn Fein and its affiliated armed wing, the IRA, were critically supportive of the Limerick Soviet, this could be seen as an instance of betrayal not only on behalf of the clergy and its influence it maintains in politics, but also somewhat on Sinn Fein as well. Not wanting to break the class “unity” that the political party was aiming to maintain, the founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, stated in January 1919,
“The General Strike is a weapon that might injure as much as serve. It would be injudicious at present and might be injudicious at any time, unless under extreme circumstances…” .
These antagonisms between Labor, Sinn Fein, and the Clergy can be further exemplified by a statement made by a Rev. Fr. W Dwane:
“I wish to state that neither his Lordship nor the clergy were consulted before the strike was declared, and they were teetotally opposed to its continuance” .
Upon reading this overview of the events following the demise of the short-lived but powerful Limerick Soviet, one may ask what went wrong. The lack of outside help from unions at the national level is one cause. Although rank-and-file union members throughout Ireland participated in practical measures such as raising money and sending food supplies, the main industrial area of Belfast was not brought into the struggle and the workers and unionists in this area did not explore the thought of replicating Limerick’s example of defiance. Furthermore, the National Union of Railway men did not assist the Soviet. This is rather disappointing, as the workers of this national union had the opportunity to shut down or utilize the railroads in order to further supply the Soviet with essentials. Due to the lack of a national strike, or the lack of even a general strike in surrounding counties of Ireland, it became obvious that this young workers’ council could not be maintained for long.
Despite the short lifespan of Ireland’s example of workers’ control, the international excitement this event sparked must not be underestimated. This event was marked by initial worldwide enthusiasm of a brighter future run directly by the producers themselves. Press agencies both domestic to Ireland, and those in the United States and the UK reported on the Limerick Soviet with a high degree of interest. At the annual conference of the Independent Labor Party of Britain, for example, it was declared that:
“Councillor Cradford of Edinburgh said that they ought to do something to encourage the ‘Limerick Soviet’ which had got over its financial difficulties by the issue of a paper currency of its own. He would like to see the working-class of this country do the same. In spite of what Mr (Ramsay) McDonald had said, the ‘Limerick Soviet’ was the first working-class Soviet on practical lines established in these islands…” .
In the United States, the Times spoke of city’s upsurge as an upheaval that would have lasting consequences:
“…with the exception of Londonderry, there is perhaps no othertown in Ireland in which its history bulks so large as it does in Limerick” .
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reported on the religiosity of the event:
“The bells of the nearby St. Munchin’s Church tolled the Angelus and all the red-badged guards rose and blessed themselves” .
The Irish Independent, on the other hand, viewed the Soviet experiment with caution while still acknowledging its importance throughout the world. In the midst of the perceived financial threat of the city, the newspaper declared on April 19th:
“Limerick, famous all over the world for the quality of its bacon, will at the present rate soon be without the morning rasher” .
As the experiment in Soviet democracy was coming to a close, the Irish Times made one last remark on April 23 regarding the international aspects the strike held for the world:
“We are spectators today of a very bold and candid experiment in Irish Syndicalism” .
Taken as a whole, it would not be idealist to say that the workers of Limerick were successful in their demands. They organized, elected a governing body, and controlled the city for nearly two weeks under threat of invasion and without outside help. Martial law was removed and the Soviet still remains a shining example of successful workers’ control.
That being said, it would be a one-sided view to say that the revolution was complete. Assistance from the National Union Leadership was not utilized and the lack of urgency to initiate strike movements across the country is what enabled the Limerick Soviet to fade. Although lasting less than two weeks, this example of workers’ struggle shows not only the power that labor has in its hands, but also the potentiality that the working class has for full scale social revolution. If organized labor can lift martial law within one city in less than two weeks, one must ponder the possibilities of a labor struggle being elevated to that of a national or international movement.
2) North Munster Antiquarian Journal, Vol. 34, 1992, p. 94
10) North Munster Antiquarian Journal, Vol. 34, 1992, p. 94