'Troops without number'

limerick soviet bakery

Image: Limerick Soviet mills, Skibbereen Eagle, 22 December 2015 http://www.skibbereeneagle.ie/uncategorized/thelimericksoviet/ 

by Shane Kennedy

Shane Kennedy is an English and History Student. A Limerick city native, he feels that his course reflects his personality perfectly, as his chief interests include reading, writing and politics. In the future, he wishes to explore history as a possible career path, because it is a subject he finds rewarding and can make a valuable contribution to society. If he had to pick a favourite period in history it would probably be antiquity as he has found the history of the Greeks and Romans to be fascinating since he was a child. If only he could speak Latin!

Limerick Soviet: a general strike against British militarism, April 1919

The Limerick general strike, retrospectively dubbed the ‘Limerick Soviet’, began in earnest on 15 April 1919. A general strike amongst the working class members of Limerick, under the supervision of members of the Irish Labour and Trade Union congress, it led to the shutdown of commerce in Limerick city for a two week period. The occurrence of the strike has a wide range of explanations. This essay will attempt to explore to what extent the strike was a reaction to British militarism. In order to achieve this, it will examine the circumstances surrounding the funeral of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) man, Robert Byrne, considered by some historians to be the catalyst for the strike, as well as the working class perception of the permit system that was established by the British authorities. The stance of the Roman Catholic clergy within the city is also relevant, given the prominent position of Catholicism at the time. Consideration is also made for the position of radical nationalist elements in the context of the Anglo-Irish war or Irish War of Independence which began in January 1919.

The Limerick Soviet has garnered considerable academic attention since the 1970s. D.R. O’Connor Lysaght‘s seminal work, The story of the Limerick soviet: the 1919 general strike against British militarism, reflected his longstanding interest in the struggle of Ireland’s working class; his work focused largely on the struggle of the working class people of Limerick and the stance against British militarism. For O’Connor Lysaght, the strike was intimately linked to the British military presence in the region, and he cited the shooting of Robert Byrne, Adjutant of the Limerick City 2nd Batallion IRA, as the catalyst for the strike action. Similarly, Liam Cahill’s Forgotten revolution. Limerick Soviet 1919: a threat to British power in Ireland, dealt with a similar exploration of the events, albeit with an added discussion of the economic background of Limerick and the city’s relationship with the labour movement. Nicola Queally’s Rebellion, resistance and the Irish working class: the case of the Limerick soviet has drawn upon Cahill and O’Connor Lysaght in her work but added a valuable discussion on the bourgeois element of the strike as well as an examination of working class publications.

The catalyst for the series of events dubbed the ‘Limerick soviet’ is generally attributed then to the night of 6 April 1919, when IRA adjutant Robert Byrne was fatally wounded alongside a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) police officer, Martin O’Brien.[1] The incident occurred at Limerick Workhouse Hospital, from where members of the IRA attempted to rescue Byrne who was on hunger strike after his arrest in January for possession of arms and minuitions. Several contmeporary newspaper accounts demonstrate that the military response was a major factor in creating unrest and a major motivator for the strike. On 17 April 1919, the Irish Independent described the testimony of Mr Lynch, K.C., who condemned the actions of the British military in Limerick and throughout Ireland. Lynch went as far to compare the administration to that of Imperial Russia: ‘they used to hear that in Russia there was no free press, no freedom of the speech or public liberty,’[2] Lynch’s testimony also reflected the military imposition at Byrne’s funeral: ’they had troop without number, armoured cars, aeroplanes, tanks , machine guns. Soldiers were stationed in the street, as if there was war in the city’.[3]

At a first glance, Lynch’s speech could be considered hyperbole. However, others, such as Michael Brennan, who led Byrne’s funeral procession, stated: 'Large parties of British troops with fixed bayonets were drawn up all along the way, but to everybody’s surprise, they didn’t interfere,’[4] This implies that the British military had a heightened presence at the funeral, as well as underlining the general animosity felt for British militarism. The fact that those present expected to engage with the military may be indicative of the general frustration felt by the local populace. Furthermore, the official report of the strike published by the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ITUC) underlined the antagonistic nature of the British military presence at the funeral procession, stating that they wished to show ‘the tushes of their power,’ and presented themselves in a most ‘provocative manner,’[5] Although this report is subject to bias as the congress sided with the strikers during the event, the correlation between this and the other accounts of the event appear to represent the overbearing military presence in the region and the general discontent amongst the local population towards these forces which appears to have been essential to the calling of the strike.

While the funeral of Byrne was influential for the strikers, arguably the most significant display of British militarism for the working class was the declaration of Limerick and the surrounding area as a ‘special military area’ meaning that martial law was applied and the inhabitants of the city had to acquire permits to travel beyond the city limits.[6]. The annual ITUC report states that a major flaw with the permit system was the designation of the Shannon River as the northern boundary of the city, which placed many of the working class citizens of Limerick in difficult positions with regard to their working lives. For example, those who worked in the Cleeve’s milk factory were subject to frequent police scrutiny while potentially having to undergo checks upwards of four times a day.[7] According to O’Connor Lysaght, 5,000-6,000 people from the Thomondgate region were subject to daily searches. [8] Further frustration was caused in this region as its location meant that those travelling to Thomondgate from the south were subject to further scrutiny.[9] 

As Jeremiah Cronin recalled: 'Guards were placed on the entrances to the city and everyone passing those barriers was searched and closely questioned'.[10] Indeed, an interesting cultural divide may be seen here between the British administration and the local population. According to Cronin, the authorities made a blunder in so far as they did not realise that many workers would have to travel outside of the city’s borders in order to get to work and that many had to return from work for dinner.[11] Furthermore, the Irish Times of 19 April 1919 claimed that the initial proclamation of the strike committee declared ‘a protest against the decision of the British government in compelling us to procure permits in order to earn our daily bread,’[12] Added to this, the discontent amongst the working class towards the military presence may be seen in the number of workers that took part in the strike.

The Irish Times estimated that the number of workers who took part in the strike numbered roughly 4,500.[13] However, this is a discrepancy from the figures provided by Queally, who totalled the number of workers involved at around 14,000.[14]It is possible that the newspaper made an error in judgement when it came to their estimation of those involved; the strike was still taking place at the time of publication. An alternative interpretation could be that the Irish Times deliberately underestimated the amount of support for the strike as the paper also penned a number of articles that portrayed the strikers in a negative way. On 23 April 1919, for example, the paper published an article titled ‘The strike at Limerick’ with a noticeably pro-British stance praising the military for its ‘tact and firmness’ while condemning the strikers for preferring ‘blood stained and bankrupt Bolshevism to an Ireland safe and progressive under British rule’.[15]The pressure the permit system placed upon the working class members of Limerick, coupled with the discriminatory borders drawn up by the British authority, appeared to be present in both the local and national consciousness at the time. This could be considered indicative of the British militarism as the main motivating factor behind the strike, a system that would also threaten the existence of those active within the war of independence.The permit system presented a significant threat to members of the IRA, as anyone wishing to apply for a permit had to provide a certificate of identification signed by an RIC sergeant. This system increased the likelihood of members being discovered.[16]

O’Connor Lysaght mentions that the strike may have been influenced by nationalist politics.[17] Indeed, a confidential police report circulated within the media suspected the strike as having its origins amongst Sinn Féin operatives within the Cleeve’s factory.[18] This may have some validity, as the factory was notably the first to declare a strike, even before the trade union congress resolved to call a general strike, a number of known IRA members were employed at the factory. Among them was Michael Stack, who was involved in the rescue attempt for Byrne. However, Stack’s statement of events to the Bureau of Military History in 1951 made no mention of any Sinn Féin plot within the factory.[19] It could be possible that Stack removed himself from public life following the event at the workhouse hospital, out of fear of RIC reprisals. As a result, he would not have been present during any major decision-making within Cleeve’s. The consideration of a political plot in the factory provides an alternate perspective on the strike as a weapon of nationalist politics rather than a workers' action against British militarism.

The stance of the Catholic clergy is an important factor given the cultural context of Ireland during the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, at the beginning of the general strike, members of Catholic Church decided to publicly express their feeling towards the position of the British military in Limerick. On 17 April 1919, the Irish Independent described a meeting between both clerical and lay members of the church at St Munchin’s College on the previous day. Following this meeting, the church issued a proclamation that contained a number of grievances felt by church officials towards the British administration. The statement revealed that the signatories regarded the proclamation of the city as a military area as ‘quite unwarrantable,’ and asserted that the military had given no substantial explanation as to why the citizens of limerick were being penalised for the actions of the IRA.[20] They also stated that the British authorities showed a ‘lamentable want of consideration for the convenience of the citizens at large'.[21] The Freeman’s Journal also published the article. However, both articles appear to have been altered by British censors at the time, with bylines stating ‘as passed by censor’.[22] It appears that both articles contained a second paragraph that was deemed unfit for public viewing. James Casey states that the missing paragraph of the proclamation condemned the military presence at Robert Byrne’s funeral and claimed that the military display was intended to ‘fill every right-minded person with feelings of disgust and abhorrence’.[23]This reveals that the Church was considerably upset by the military actions of the British authorities.

Indeed, the fact that the British authority felt the need to censor this document implies just how much influence the Church held within the region and the extent the administration viewed it as a threat. Prior to the strike, there appears to have been longstanding outspokenness amongst clergy members regarding the British military presence. As early as February 1918, Father Dwayne published a letter within The Soldier Hunter, a newspaper established to criticise the British military presence in Limerick, drawing attention to several instances of sexual assault that occurred between civilians and military members (most notably, one case involving a young sixteen year old girl) which he condemned as the ‘lustful passions of a young clod-hopper’. [24]Following the strike, Dwayne altered his rhetoric. On 27 April 1919, he delivered a sermon to his parish and stated that he was glad the strike was over.[25] This was probably due to the relaxation of the military presence in Limerick that followed the conclusion of the strike.[26] The clergy’s grievances by now had been largely addressed following the restructuring and removal of the permit system in the days after the strike’s end.

In conclusion, it appears that British militarism was a significant factor behind the general strike. The working class, who made up the bulk of the strike body, and their representatives in the trade union congress, made their stance towards the permit system clear through their various proclamations and first-hand accounts. The presence of the British military had created such an imposition that a radical strike action was deemed necessary to address their grievances. This appears to have been widely supported by Limerick’s clergy, who had similar grievances with the treatment of Byrne’s funeral and the implementation of the permit system. There appears to have also been a nationalist political element involved also, albeit to a much lesser extent. Although economic hardship and militarism had been a staple of Irish life for decades, it appears that the struggle of the early twentieth century pushed the population to its breaking point, and radical actions amongst a wide variety of social strata was deemed necessary.


[1] O’Connor Lysaght, The story of the Limerick soviet: the 1919 general strike against British militarism (Limerick,1979), p.43

[2] Irish Independent. 8 April 1919.

[3] Irish Independent. 8 April 1919.

[4] Statement of Michael Brennan, 11 January 1955, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History (hereafter BMH), WS1068, p. 36 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1068.pdf#page=37) (25 March 2017)

[5] Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ITUC), Report of the twenty-fifth annual meeting (August 1919), pp 56-58National Archives of Ireland (http://centenaries-ituc.nationalarchives.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/25th-annual-report-1919.pdf) (25 March  2017)

[6] Irish Times, 19 April 1919.

[7] ITUC, Report of the twenty-fifth annual meeting,  p.57

[8] O’Connor Lysaght, The story of the Limerick soviet, p.60

[9] ITUC, Report of the twenty-fifth annual meeting, p.57

[10] Statement of Jeremiah Cronin, 23 May 1956, BMH, WS1423, p.13 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1423.pdf#page=4) (25 March  2017)

[11] Cronin statement, WS1423, p.14

[12] Irish Times, 19 April 1919.

[13] Irish Times, 19 April 1919.

[14] Nicola Queally, Rebellion, resistance and the Irish working class: the case of the Limerick soviet (Cambridge, 2010).  p.19

[15] Irish Times, 24 April 1919.

[16] Liam Cahill, Forgotten revolution: Limerick Soviet 1919: a threat to British power in Ireland (Dublin,1990) p.61

[17] O’Connor Lysaght, The story of the Limerick soviet. p. 63

[18] Irish Independent, 21 April 1919.

[19] Statement of Micheal Stack, 9 June 1951, BMH, WS0525 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0525.pdf) (25 March 2017)

[20] Irish Independent, 17 April 1919.

[21] Irish Independent, 17 April 1919.

[22] Freeman’s Journal, 17 April 1919.

[23] James Casey, ‘A Limerick challenge to British tyranny’ in Limerick’s fighting story (Cork, 1948) p.192.

[24] Father Dwayne, The Soldier Hunter, quoted in Cahill, Forgotten revolution, p.33. 

[25] Limerick Leader, 28 April 1919.

[26] O’Connor Lysaght, The story of the Limerick soviet, p.67.