BETWEEN 16 and 19 April 2009, Barnet Trades Council secretary Austin Harney attended events commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Limerick Soviet. In addition to taking part in the events and delivering the fraternal greetings of the Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils, he sent the Irish Democrat the following report:
THE LIMERICK Soviet may seem to be one of the least recognised events in Irish history, but it certainly could be viewed as an important epoch in workers' struggles.
It was a great example of a well organised strike by all local trade unions in Limerick and could have escalated to the rest of Ireland and Britain.
The commemorative events were launched on 6 April in Limerick City Hall by John Gilligan, the mayor of Limerick. They included a two week exhibition, the launch of a 4th edition of D R O'Connor Lysaght's Story of the Limerick Soviet on 17 April and 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).
The commemoration closed on 19 April with 'The Workers' Walk', which visited the historic sites of the 1919 strike. The walk was organised by Dominic Haugh, a postal workers' union shop steward and local historian.
The Limerick Soviet was established on 6 April 1919, a few months after the Dáil (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. One day, his employer found an excuse to dismiss him and, later, his house was searched by the authorities. As a pistol was found, which may have been planted there. He was arrested and imprisoned.
Byrne protested against this treatment by going on hunger strike. 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 and 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. Local people had to reveal their permits to the British guards on duty before going to work.
Local trade unions responded by resorting 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 note that a Scottish regiment was very sympathetic, 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.
The strike was set to escalate at national level. 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, support from the Church and the British-led TUC waned. 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. While the industrial action was a great success at local level, an ideal opportunity for an international strike within Britain and Ireland had been 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.
There were many communists in the Limerick IRA who played a prominent role in the War of Independence (1919 - 1921) and the Civil War (1922 - 1923).
But the events of the Limerick strike, sadly, played have not been widely recognised by historians and communism did not become a respectable ideology there, unlike certain other European countries.
Finally, with reference to the seminar which took place on 18 April, SIPTU president 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 this council in defending workers' rights.
It is important that we build greater links between the trade unions of these two nations in protecting our workers against global capitalism.
I would like to thank the Limerick Commemoration Committee and the Trades Union Council for promoting this important anniversary.
Further information about the Limerick Soviet can be found in Forgotten Revolution and The story of the Limerick Soviet on the website: www.limericksoviet90.com
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