On Sunday, 6th April 1919, the IRA launched a mission to rescue Robert J. Byrne. Byrne was a prominent Limerick trade unionist and IRA member who had been sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment for possession of a revolver and ammunition without authority. Byrne and other IRA members in Limerick jail had gone on hunger strike in an attempt to seek status as political prisoners. Byrne's health deteriorated seriously and he had been transferred, under police guard, to Limerick Workhouse Hospital.
The rescue attempt was an utter failure. A constable was shot dead, a second was wounded; Byrne himself had been injured fatally. In response Limerick city was proclaimed a 'special military area' under the control of the British Army. On11th April, a large area in and around the Borough of Limerick was declared to be under martial law. Anyone who wished to enter this area could do so only if they carried permits issued by the British military on the recommendation of the Royal Irish Constabulary. No exception would to be made for workers commuting to and from their jobs that were often outside the proclaimed area.
The unions responded by calling a general strike from 14th April, until the end of martial law. The strike had an immediate success. Even small shop-keepers, participated readily enough in the strike. To avoid a food shortage, the Strike Committee established a subordinate body to organise the supply of food to Limerick. It opened a food depot on the north bank of the River Shannon to take supplies (mainly of milk, potatoes and butter) from the farmers of Co. Clare. The sub-committee operated four distribution depots from which it was fixing the retail prices for its sales. It even organised the supply of hay for cart horses.
Fortuitously the strike gained international publicity: A transatlantic air race was to take place at the same time. One of the competitors had planned to refuel at an airfield near Limerick. As a result many reporters were in the city including representatives of the Chicago Tribune, the Paris Matin, and the Associated Press of America.. Needless to say they reported the strike
However, the strike did not receive the support of the Trade Unions Congress in London which declared the actions in Limerick to be political. Accordingly it instructed unions to refuse strike pay to those of their members that were involved in it. Meanwhile an initiative by the Mayor and the Bishop of Limerick to reach a compromise with the British military resulted in an agreement that if the soviet ended and there was no trouble in the proclaimed area for a week after then the Military Permit Order would be revoked.
On 27 April Strike Committee declared that declared that strike notices were withdrawn for those working within the boundary of the proclaimed area. The permits were subsequently revoked.
Was the Limerick Soviet a failure? I suppose that depends on how you look at it. As the catalyst for a socialist revolution then it was an abject failure; as a protest against the imposition of a repressive travel permit system then it was a success. It’s still a fascinating little slice of history.
Here is a tv item about the Limerick Soviet that was broadcast on RTE
Click here for an online copy of a book written by Liam Cahill about the Limerick Soviet written in 1990
Libcom has an article here about the Soviet. This post was based to a large extent on this article