When Limerick workers took on an empire

Nick Rabbitts

Reporter:

Nick Rabbitts

THE Limerick Soviet, which took over the city in 1919, is a less celebrated part of local history. But Mike McNamara, the president of the Limerick Trades Council, is trying to change this, as Leader reporter Nick Rabbitts discovers.

THE Limerick Soviet, which took over the city in 1919, is a less celebrated part of local history. But Mike McNamara, the president of the Limerick Trades Council, is trying to change this, as Leader reporter Nick Rabbitts discovers.

ALTHOUGH the anniversary of the Limerick Soviet is still some years away, the head of the Limerick Council of Trades Unions has unveiled a rich archive from the time of the event.

One of the less celebrated pieces of local history, the Limerick Soviet lasted for two weeks from April 15 to 27 1919.

At the beginning of the War of Independence, the strike was organised as a protest against the British Army’s declaration of a special military area which covered the whole of the city.

The biggest figure in the Soviet (which means a self-governing committee) was no doubt Robert Byrne, whose tragic death is marked around May Day each year.

But it was the efforts of a large committee which made the strike a success.

Money was printed, which was accepted in shops across the city who saw their food prices strictly controlled, while this newspaper was only allowed to be published with the permission of the committee.

The Limerick Leader published a special ‘three day edition’ covering April 14, 16 and 18.

For the last two years, Mr McNamara has been building up a fascinating collection of memorabilia from the period, including newspaper cuttings, books, and other military archive from the time.

The origins of the Soviet stem from when Robert Byrne, the president of the postal workers union, and a fighter for independence, was arrested after police found a gun at his house.

He was arrested, charged and sentenced to 12 years hard labour in jail.

An influential figure, he immediately became the “head man” in prison, according to Mike, who added: “He went about looking for political status, and better recognition of the soldiers who were in prison at the time. The result of that was that he went on hunger strike from the beatings and punishment meted out to them for expressing their views in prison.”

As April approached, with Byrne under armed guard and now in the old Union Hospital, the IRA attempted to liberate him.

Constable Martin O’Brien was fatally wounded, and Byrne was seriously injured.

After he later died from his injuries, the British crown introduced a curfew controlling movement in and out of Limerick.

Thus began the workers’ fightback - and the Soviet was born.

Although Mike’s collection mainly focuses on the Limerick Soviet, there are other equally important pieces of local history recorded.

In 1867, more than 40,000 people across Limerick marched in solidarity at the three ‘Manchester Martyrs’ - William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien - who were executed for murdering a British police officer.

The men stewarding the march wore green armbands, with a cross stitched in to signify for the fact it was not a violent march.

This was spite of the fact that officers in the British army garrisons locked their gates in fear.

“The people knelt and prayed at the time for the repose of the souls of the three martyrs,” Mike explained, “But it was reported that the crowds were impeccable that day. They were there for one reason: to pray for people, and show their outrage. Outrage by prayer, if you like.”

As part of the military archives, Mike also has a crime report which shows the influence Robert Byrne carried in the struggle for independence.

“I have here a crime report, typed out by a Sgt Walsh, based in the John Street area. He writes to Dublin Castle about the funeral of John Daly, who was known as the Fenian. He writes: The residence of his mother with whom he resides here was visited by the late suspect Thomas J Clarke and John McDermott.’ What is interesting about this is that two of the leaders in the 1916 rising, who would be dead at this stage, had been observed in Robert Byrne’s mother’s house. This I believe shows he was influential in the Easter Rising,” Mike said.

During the Soviet, sympathisers came from miles around, finding ways of circumventing British security.

Printing money was a “major challenge to the British establishment,” Mike said.

“The main guarantee that came out of this was that food would be given out,” he explained, adding that sympathisers sent food across the Shannon by boat, beating the British forces attempts to suppress the strike.

Mike is to make the rich collection available for viewing at the home of trade unionism in the Mechanics Institute, Hartstonge Street.

But he wants there to be a better education of what writer Liam Cahill described as “the forgotten revolution” in schools.

He believes it is not taught well, because of a lack of understanding on the part of the teacher.

“I know one instance where a person contacted me looking for access to information because they were doing this project for their leaving certificate. But when they went back to their teacher with the idea, the teacher told the student not to do the project, because they could not mark it,” he recalls.

The importance of the Limerick Soviet in our overall history cannot be underestimated, Mike added.

“It is probably one of the most important episodes in labour history. At the time, up to 10,000 people attended the funeral of Robert Byrne. This was a demonstration of workers and their will not to be crushed.”

From next summer, the Limerick Council of Trade Unions hopes to run an annual school to keep the memory of the Soviet alive and kicking.

Indeed, a longer term aim is to create a commemorative stamp for its centenary in 2019.

“I think this would be a fitting tribute, given the fact he came from the postal workers side before moving up. It is something we think should be kept alive, and a collectors stamp would help do this,” Mike says.

With recent workers struggles taking centre stage in Limerick - retailer GAME and Irish Cement to name just two - the trade union official says plenty of inspiration can be taken from the Soviet.

“In the absence of partnership, employers are taking it upon themselves to cut workers pay and conditions of employment. This is where trade unionists need to dust themselves down, and prepare for the battles ahead. We know there will be some austerity, but it should be imposed all on one side, and we are not prepared to accept this imbalance,” he concluded.