As stated previously, it is my intention to put individual emphasis on a number of the smaller scale actions and events of the Irish War of Independence, that I will be choosing based on my own metrics of importance, notoriety and uniqueness. I am also intending to have a post for every year of the conflict wherein I will give time and attention to other events of a smaller, relatively less important, nature. Today’s topic is one that may not have that much notoriety, but was certainly unique for Ireland, and important insofar as it demonstrated the changing nature of Irish reactions to British rule.
While Limerick did not have any great experience of uprising in 1916 it had, like the rest of the country, been swept up in the rise of Sinn Fein and militant nationalist republicanism. In 1918 the city had elected the imprisoned Michael Colivert, the leader of the Volunteers in the city during the Easter Rising, as its MP, with the county also electing 1916 veterans in Richard Hayes and Con Collins. When Colivert returned to Limerick in early March 1919, gigantic crowds turned out to welcome him. The IRA was as active in Limerick as they were in other parts of Munster, but the garrison status of the city meant that British counter-responses were always a threat to their political and military activities.
Robert “Bobby” Byrne was a 30-year-old trade unionist and a member of the IRA’s 2nd Battalion, Mid Limerick Brigade. At the time, he had lost his post office job for his political and union affiliations, before his arrest on charges of arms possession. He refused to recognise the authority of the court and did not enter a plea: In January 1919 he was found guilty and sentenced to a year’s hard labour. Campaigns with other republican prisoners to get political status resulted in beatings from guards and deteriorating health when Byrne joined a hunger strike: in March he was transferred to Limerick Union Workhouse hospital, where he was guarded by a six-strong team of RIC and prison warders.
For the local IRA units, Byrne’s hospital stay was an opportunity to free him from confinement. They planned to take advantage of the decision to place him in a public ward that visitors had easy access to, there to hold up the guard and then take Byrne to a nearby nursing home, where he could be secretly nursed back to health before going on to an IRA safehouse.
Twenty IRA volunteers took part in the operation, split into two sections, one commanded by a Jack Gallagher, and the other by a Michael Stack. The commanders were the only two with guns. On the appointed day, the 6th April, the twenty went to the hospital, posing as visitors. When given the signal they rushed Byrne’s guards: in the ensuring scuffle, Byrne was shot in the chest before his assailant, Constable James Mitchell, was shot in turn, though he was only wounded. Another constable, Martin O’Brien, was shot dead a few moments later, before the rest of the guard party was subdued.
The badly wounded Byrne was taken from the bed, but, owing to a miscommunication, the getaway car was missing. Forced to walk for a time, Byrne was eventually taken on an appropriated pony and trap to a nearby farmhouse, where he would, that same day, succumb to his wounds. Byrne is thus classified as the first IRA casualty of the War of Independence.
The British response to the killing of O’Brien was a large-scale search operation, and the arrest of numerous figures, most of whom had nothing to do with Byrne or his rescue. The RIC baton charged an angry crowd that gathered near the barracks where the arrested were taken, and Byrne’s funeral a few days later attracted thousands of mourners (curiously, one of the surviving photographs of the proceedings shows British military personnel saluting the tricolour-draped coffin). At the inquest into his death, the RIC moved to adjourn proceedings that implied Byrne had been shot at point-blank range, clearly indicating a deliberate attempt to kill him to prevent his escape, though there remains debate on this point.
On the 7th April Limerick was declared, as Tipperary had been following Soloheadbeg, a “Special Military Area”. This meant that all civilians were obligated to apply for, and carry, special military permits in order to travel in and out of the city. The reasoning was that it would make the movements of the IRA trickier, but it was a situation that disproportionately affected lower-class workers who would move from the city centre to its factories and back again every day. Regular British troops and vehicles were deployed in select points of the city which was, in effect, now under a military occupation.
The response to this came from Limerick’s trade unions, of which Byrne had been a leading member. There had already been a dramatic upturn in the amount of strikes taking place in Ireland as of late, most notably the nationwide stoppages in response to the threat of conscription. Trade unions were becoming an ever more normal part of professional life for workers, with the ITGWU rivalling Sinn Fein in terms of size and membership in certain parts of the country. They were thus in a position to be a leader in terms of response. After lengthy discussions, on the 13th April the United Trades and Labour Council called a general strike, involving over 15’000 workers, the governing of which was passed to a committee the following day, chaired by carpenter John Cronin, which dubbed itself a “Soviet”.
That term has some loaded political meanings owing to its use in Russia to describe the worker’s collectives that emerged before, during and after the chaos of the 1917 revolutions. It comes from the Russian for “council” and does not inherently refer to a communist system (the upper house of the modern-day Russian legislature is still called the “Soviet Federatsii”), though it is rarely used outside of this context. To be part of a “soviet” was to generally identify with socialism as it pertained to the working class.
The Limerick Soviet, in contrast, was not a communist event. For one thing nearly everyone involved in it was Catholic, a religion that set itself up as an antithesis to secular communism. There was a large amount of national and international journalists present in the area, having hoped to report on a transatlantic flight attempt due to depart nearby (despite fuel support from the Soviet, the pilot’s effort ended with him ditching his plane only a few hours after take-off). They were happy to report those involved with the strike blessing themselves when the Angelus sounded. The Mayor of Limerick was happy to assure anyone who cared to listen that the Soviet hadn’t a hint of socialism in it, and the local clergy had no fear of it either, with priests and bishops based in the area frequently used as trusted arbiters in industrial disputes.
The other thing that differentiated the Limerick Soviet from its Russian brethren was its overall aim. There was no confiscation of private property, no attempted re-distribution of land or wealth. The committee instead had the much simpler goal of having the SMA edict revoked. In essence, the Limerick Soviet was less a socialist uprising, than a large-scale example of civic disobedience.
In so doing, it was a direct challenge to British authority. The strike essentially became a temporary independence for the Limerick City area, a period when the nominal administration was ignored and a new worker-driven one was created. And it had all the trappings of its own state, as it printed its own money, published its own media and set controlled prices on foodstuffs. Supplies of food, gas and water were carefully controlled. The soviet was self-policing, thanks to the involvement of IRA units and Fianna Eireann, and there were no instances of reported looting or unusual levels of crime during its existence. The committee held numerous press conferences to call attention to their successes, and present themselves as a legitimate governing body. British troops and RIC were the subjects of boycotts. Shops and other private properties were largely left alone, as long as they acknowledged the Soviets’ authority, with numerous business hanging signs that read that they opened with the “permission of the strike committee”.
The Soviet could not last of course. It had obvious political motivations – Cronin praised the actions of Robert Byrne in public pronouncements, and railed against “English tyranny” – and it was not designed to create a lasting city state. There was never any real effort to spread its borders to other parts of Ireland. There were some who wanted to do this, but there was a lack of support from the national leadership of the trade unions, or the under-represented Labour Party. Many of their number thought the Limerick Soviet too politicised, while members of the Dail were scared off by its ties, even if they were only surface level, to revolutionary socialism. With no large-scale support to tap into, the Soviet could only last so long.
Two weeks after it had started, the Soviet came to an end when a combination of the mayoral office, local clergy and local businesses put pressure on the committee to conclude their efforts. On the 27th April, ten days after it had started, the entire affair was terminated. The SMA edict was revoked the following week, so the strikers could claim to have fulfilled their stated objectives. Other “soviets” would be declared over the following few years, all smaller-scale events usually consisting of workers temporarily occupying factories and industrial complexes, and none of them really coming close to the communist equivalent.
If nothing else the strike, and the manner in which a sizable portion of the city’s population rallied behind both it and the effort to make Limerick self-governing for a time, indicated the level of antipathy towards the British authorities. Guerrilla struggles are dependent on popular support, and the Limerick Soviet was clear evidence that such popular support did exist. The British did not attempt any kind of militant push-back on the strike for obvious reasons – the local commanders were smart enough not to create more martyrs, and did not share Maxwell’s belligerence – but the entire affair must have made them realise how close parts of the country were to slipping out of their hands. The SMA status of Limerick, and the surrounding counties, was only deferred.
The Limerick Soviet was part of the societal and cultural war now being fought, but the military side of things was also continuing. In April one of the most spectacular engagements of the war was going to take place, when some of the men behind the Soloheadbeg ambush once again took centre stage.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.