From Socialist Voice, May 2010

A proud chapter in Irish revolutionary history


A feature of the liberation struggle of 1919–1923 that has been wiped from public memory is the setting up of “soviets” or workers’ councils in parts of Munster. TG4 threw light on this aspect of the Black-and-Tan War period in a documentary in the “Anamnocht” series last month, “Soviet na hÉireann.”
     By far the most important of these revolutionary enterprises, and the one closest to the Russian model, was the Limerick Soviet. There, fourteen thousand workers went on strike in protest against the military law and harassment inflicted by the occupation authorities. The city was virtually governed by the strike committee, led by John Cronin, a carpenter, James Casey, a printer, and James Carr, an engineering worker. The committee, which quickly earned the description of “soviet,” regulated prices and controlled transport. Subcommittees dealt with propaganda, finance, food, and vigilance.
     With enemy forces besieging the city, they organised the underground importation of essential supplies. While the Limerick Soviet did not last very long, it inspired other “soviets,” which were involved in the take-over of factories by workers and their transformation into producer co-operatives. The best example of this was the Knocklong creamery in Co. Limerick, seized from the Cleeve family—notoriously bad employers—which raised the slogan We make butter, not profits. Similar projects emerged in Bruree and Castleconnell (Co. Limerick), Waterford, and Carrick-on-Suir (Co. Tipperary).
     It would be a mistake to imagine that a Soviet Republic of Ireland was around the corner. Unfortunately, the conditions for that did not exist, but nevertheless the soviet movement in Munster was of great significance. It showed that a class and internationalist consciousness was widespread among urban and rural workers. The very adoption of the term “soviet” displayed a positive attitude towards the Russian Bolsheviks and was a sign of solidarity with workers fighting under the Red Flag throughout Europe. The Irish “soviets” came into being because of the objective conditions of the time, mainly the collapse of the state in many areas of the country, as much a result of passive popular resistance as of the military achievements of the IRA flying columns.
     The “soviets” could have had a huge impact on the nature and result of the struggle were it not for certain negative circumstances. These included the absence of a communist party, no organisational unity between the various efforts, and the lack of sympathy at the top of the labour, trade union and national movements. There was no James Connolly. Thomas Johnson was leader of the Labour Party, which had backed down from taking a leading role in the national revolution; and the largest trade union, the ITGWU, was led by Bill O’Brien, who had embarked on a lifelong position of cultivating a cult of Connolly without doing anything to forward the great man’s ideology.
     The national trade union leadership threw cold water on the “soviets” and worked to restore peace, as they saw it. There were radical republican leaders, like Séamus Robinson, Peadar O’Donnell, Seán Murray, and Liam Mellows, who might have pushed towards social revolution, given the chance, but the national leadership had no great sympathy with what was happening. De Valera and Collins had an identical conservative nationalist mind-set, and attacks on private property would have horrified the reactionary Arthur Griffith.
     In the end, what lingered of the Munster soviet movement was broken up brutally by the Free State army, aided by vigilante-style groups of strong farmers’ sons—predecessors of the Blueshirts, who a little over a decade later would have turned Ireland into a gangster-state were they not faced down by communists, republicans, and (let it be said) the Fianna Fáil of the time.

• The definitive account of the Limerick Soviet by Liam Cahill was published in 1990 and is out of print, but the author has kindly made it available free of charge on the internet at www.limericksoviet.com.
• At the time of writing, the video of Soviet na hÉireann can still be viewed on www.tg4.ie; follow the lead from “TG4 Beo.”
[CDF]

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