The Limerick Soviet: Workers' motivations for the general strike in Limerick, 1919

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Workers’ motivations for the general strike in Limerick, 1919.

Master’s Thesis (45 credits), Spring 2021 Author: Martha Dunster

Supervisor: Theresa Johnsson

Master’s Programme in Modern History Submission Date: 17 May 2021



In April 1919, the Trades and Labour Council of Limerick County, Ireland, declared a general strike in response to the increasingly militarised policing of the region by the British authorities.

A Strike Committee, consisting of local activists, assumed governance of Limerick for two weeks.

While various attempts have been made to uncover this largely forgotten chapter of Irish history, the voices and perspectives of workers who initiated and sustained the general strike remain largely absent from the historical record. Therefore, this thesis utilises newspapers and documents produced by local activists in order to assess workers’ motivations for embracing direct action and participating in this radical act of protest. Firstly, I will discuss how the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) capitalised on the perceived shortcomings of craft unions and parliamentary strategies by offering a more self-sufficient model of labour activism. Additionally, I will challenge the notion that direct action in Limerick was a

fundamentally ‘pragmatic’ endeavour by exploring various ideological currents which inspired workers to participate in the general strike. The Limerick Soviet was not only conceived as a response to specific grievances but was framed by some participants as an act of defiance against both capitalism and British colonialism. Consequently, this thesis will examine how global anti- colonialist and anti-capitalist ideologies and movements influenced the political climate of Limerick between 1916 and 1920. This thesis will also demonstrate the capacity of local activists to adapt and amend ideologies they encountered in order to suit the particularities of the local economic and political climate.


Table of Contents

Abstract ... ii

Table of Contents ... iii

Abbreviations ... iv

Chapter 1 Introduction ... 1

Historical Context ... 2

Previous Research ... 7

Theoretical Perspectives ... 10

Sources and Method ... 13

Structure ... 17

Chapter 2 Disillusionment with Labour and Trade Unions ... 20

Developments within Trade Unionism ... 20

“Labour Must Wait” ... 26

Chapter 3 Protests as a Cause of Radicalism ... 31

The Death of Robert Byrne ... 32

Previous and Ongoing Strikes ... 34

Achievements of Collective Action ... 37

Chapter 4 International Revolutionary Movements and Anti-Colonialism ... 40

International Revolutionary Movements ... 41

International Decolonisation Struggles ... 46

Chapter 5 The Relationship between Leaders and the “Rank and File” ... 52

“Larkinism” ... 53

Connolly and “Socialist Republicanism” ... 56

Local Agitators and Activists ... 59

Adapting Ideologies: Women’s Revolutionary Role ... 62

Chapter 6 Conclusion ... 67

Appendix ... 72

Timeline ... 74

Sources and Literature ... 75

Unpublished Sources ... 75

Published Sources ... 75

Literature ... 78



CGT Confédération Générale du Travail

ILP Independent Labour Party

IPP Irish Parliamentary Party

IRA Irish Republican Army

IRSP Irish Republican Socialist Party

ITGWU Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union

ITUC Irish Trade Union Congress

IWW International Workers of the World

LFTC Limerick Federated Trades Council

LUTLC Limerick United Trades and Labour Council

NUDL National Union of Dock Labourers

NUR National Union of Railwaymen

RIC Royal Irish Constabulary


Chapter 1 Introduction

The Limerick Soviet was established in April 1919 after workers in Limerick County, Ireland announced a county-wide general strike in protest against what they termed “British militarism”.1 The strike was initiated by representatives of Limerick’s trade unions, and a Strike Committee was established to oversee the operation of business and industry in the county for its duration. The Committee produced its own newspaper, the Workers’ Bulletin, and even issued its own currency.2 Prominent local activists hoped for support on a national scale, with some even expressing belief that the Limerick Soviet would act as a catalyst for a nationwide general strike.3 However, national labour bodies did not share such revolutionary hopes, and national strike action did not occur.4 Therefore, two weeks after the Soviet was declared, the general strike in Limerick was called to an end. While the strike itself didn’t achieve the most radical aims of some of its participants, it succeeded in undermining the increasingly militarised policing of the local community and inspired future “Soviets”, strikes and workplace occupations in Ireland.5

This thesis seeks to explore the role of both ideology and lived experience in motivating people in Limerick to participate in the general strike of 1919. In order to do so, I will analyse numerous newspapers produced by citizens of Limerick between the years of 1916 and 1920. These newspapers will be used to explore the material conditions in Limerick, workers’ lived experiences of conflict with employers and the state, and ideological currents which influenced the strategies they endorsed. Newspapers produced by local activists and informally distributed among workers suggest numerous reasons why people in Limerick became disillusioned with formal electoral politics and sought a more radical path to redress their grievances. They reveal how workers themselves could interpret and articulate their lived experiences, including experiences of poverty, poor working conditions and military suppression.

Previous analyses of the Limerick Soviet suggest that workers in the county did not hold strong ideological convictions but ‘spontaneously’ employed syndicalist strategies to resolve specific grievances.6 In order to evaluate this perspective, this thesis will interrogate the relationship between lived experiences and ideological motivations, exploring various ways in which the syndicalist movement capitalised upon discontentment by offering revolutionary solutions to workers’ grievances. Additionally, I will draw connections between the events of Limerick and international movements, examining how Limerick’s labour movement gained impetus from anti- colonial and anti-capitalist political projects in other nations. Lastly, I will examine the relationship

1The phrase “Limerick Strike Against British Militarism” is printed on currency printed by the Strike Committee (See Figure 1 in Appendix).

2 Cahill 2019, pp. 21—22.

3 “Irish Strike Threats”, Daily Express 24 April 1919; Kostic 2005, p. 198.

4 Haugh 2019, p. 13.

5 O’Connor, 2000; D. Lee, 2003, pp. 295—300.

6 D. Lee 2003, p. 295; Queally 2010, p. 5; Cahill 2019, p. 275, 293.


between the “rank-and-file” and leaders of the labour movement, exploring the role workers played in adapting and disseminating radical ideas in the local community.

In 1919, Ireland was in the midst of a national struggle for independence from the British Empire, commonly referred to as the Irish Revolution. Socialist and trade unionist figureheads featured among its leading revolutionaries, and one of the first and most influential republican paramilitary organisations of the Revolutionary era developed out of a labour dispute in Dublin.7 Despite this, historical accounts of the Revolution frequently marginalise the importance of socialist ideas and overlook the many labour disputes which occurred throughout the revolutionary period.8 While some historians have sought to remedy this, many fall short of drawing explicit connections between labour struggles in Ireland and international revolutionary movements. By focusing on the ideologies which gave impetus to the general strike of 1919, this thesis will demonstrate that workers in Limerick were heavily inspired by international currents of radical thought.

The Limerick Soviet and subsequent worker militancy in the region continues to be an issue of great interest to trade unionists and socialists in Ireland. Dominic Haugh describes the Limerick Soviet as “one of the most momentous events in Irish labour history”, while D. R. O’Connor Lysaght has suggested it had the potential to provoke a nationwide socialist revolution.9 Despite such claims, the Soviet is extremely under-researched and there is very limited public awareness of its existence, even in Ireland. Commentators have referred to the events in Limerick as the

“forgotten revolution”.10

Historical Context

The Limerick Soviet was created in the midst of the Irish War of Independence of 1919 to 1921, in which Irish republicans fought against British forces in pursuit of national independence. A major historical event which contributed to the rapid growth of militant republicanism in Ireland was the Easter Rising, a military insurrection against British rule in Ireland which occurred in April 1916. After the Rising, British authorities executed those regarded to be leaders of the insurrection, including some non-combatants.11 Their severe response generated widespread sympathy for the republican cause.12 The republican organisation Sinn Féin capitalised upon this newfound sympathy

7 The Irish Citizen Army (ICA) was formed by members of Dublin’s branch of the ITGWU in order to defend local trade unionists during a labour dispute known as the Dublin Lockout in 1913. The ICA collaborated with Republicans in militarily opposing British rule in Ireland (O’Connor 2002 pp. 22—23).

8 Ferriter 2015, p. 120.

9 O’Connor Lysaght 1979; Haugh 2006, p. 30.

10 Cahill 2019.

11 Murphy 2014, p. 57.

12 Laffan 1999, p. 156; Murphy 2014, p. 154.


and declared its ambition to create an Irish republican counter-state.13 Sinn Féin candidates then secured a landslide victory in the 1918 general election. Victorious Sinn Féin MPs abstained from the UK Parliament and instead convened as Dáil Éireann (the “Assembly of Ireland”) on 21 January 1919.14 This date is regarded by many historians to mark the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. In Limerick County, Sinn Féin rapidly grew in strength during this period. Between May and June of 1917, over 70 Sinn Féin clubs emerged in the region, and Limerick was home to two battalions of the IRA.15 Throughout the War of Independence, Limerick is regarded to have been one of the most prominent and radical sites of republican activity.16 The major events of the Revolutionary era and the general strike in Limerick are set out in a timeline on page 74 of this thesis.

Another organisation that was highly influential in the political life of Limerick was the ITGWU. The ITGWU was founded by Jim Larkin in 1909.17 It was an industrial union that sought to organise employees of all rankings across industries.18 The most well-known dispute the organisation was part of was the Dublin Lockout of 1913, a major conflict between Dublin employers and ITGWU members.19 While this conflict helped to raise the profile of the union, ITGWU membership did not immediately improve. The organisation attempted to establish a branch in Limerick in July 1914, but “completely failed” to do so.20 However, the union’s fortunes changed after the First World War. The ITGWU experienced rapid growth from 1918 to 1919. By December 1919, the ITGWU had 429 branches registered at its head office, and the union reported a membership of 103,000 people across Ireland.21

Limerick is a city contained within County Limerick, which is located in the province of Munster in the Southwest of Ireland. According to census data from 1911, Limerick county had a population of 143,069 people.22 The population of Limerick city and county was overwhelmingly Catholic, with 101,502 citizens being recorded as Catholic in the same census.23 During the aftermath of the First World War, many Irish cities experienced substantial growth in major industries. However, Limerick’s economy benefited comparatively little. While the farming and manufacturing sectors experienced a degree of economic growth after the War, other major forms of employment such as the dockyards and the pork and bacon curing trades suffered greatly. 24

13 ‘The Manifesto of Sinn Féin as prepared for circulation for the General Election of December’, 1918.

14 Ferriter 2015, p. 185.

15 O’Callaghan 2010, p. 54.

16 Ibid., pp. 5—6.

17 Greaves 1982, pp. 26—27.

18 O’Connor 2011, p. 117.

19 Yeates 2001, pp. 31—36.

20 Fitzpatrick 1977, p. 241.

21 Ibid. p. 246.

22 Census data was not recorded during the War of Independence, and so the most recent data prior to the Limerick Soviet is from 1911.

23 O’Callaghan 2010, p. 10.

24 Haugh 2006, p. 27; O’Callaghan 2010, p. 10.


Furthermore, even in sectors that experienced some growth, the working-class population benefited little. Local workers experienced low wages, poor housing, and widespread illness.25 Among the largest employers in the region were four brothers named Cleeve who owned numerous creameries, factories and warehouses across Munster, including the Condensed Milk Company of Ireland.26 In total, the Cleeves Company directly employed around three thousand workers from Limerick city and county. In addition, their factories processed milk supplied by around five thousand farmers based in and around Limerick county. 27 Cleeves had a reputation for underpaying employees and for offering poor working conditions. They also refused the demands of trade unionists on numerous occasions.28

While the 1919 general strike occurred amid growing resentment against such inadequate living and working conditions, its existence can also be traced back to the death of a single Republican activist named Robert J. Byrne. Byrne was an active trade unionist and a member of the 2nd Battalion of the IRA in Limerick.29 In January 1919, Byrne was imprisoned on the charge of possession of a revolver. Like many republican prisoners, Byrne went on hunger strike during his prison sentence in order to advocate for his right to be recognised as a political prisoner. His demands were not met, and the authorities were forced to relocate Byrne to a hospital in March 1919.30 Following this relocation, fellow members of the Limerick IRA battalions formulated a plan to rescue Byrne from the hospital. However, the mission went awry, and, as a result, both a guarding policeman and Byrne himself were shot dead on 6 April 1919.31

Byrne’s death caused a mass outcry among the population of Limerick, many of whom were already angered by the plight of hunger-striking prisoners at the hands of prison guards and police.32 Officials feared that the funeral could spark unrest if large crowds attended. Therefore, on 9 April, the day before Byrne’s funeral, the British military utilised their unprecedented powers under the wartime Defence of the Realm Act to declare Limerick a military zone.33 Despite the severe scrutiny and repression this entailed, Byrne’s funeral was transformed into a mass event, attended by around 15,000 people.34 Tanks were stationed along the funeral procession and there was a heavy presence of soldiers. No disturbance occurred at the funeral, but the authorities decided to persevere with heavy military suppression of the county. Limerick was to become a Special Military Area, which meant that, as of 14 April, people travelling in or out of the boundaries of the military zone were required to possess a permit from the authorities and face military examination. However, many

25 O’Callaghan 2010, p. 10.

26 Haugh 2006, p. 27.

27 Cahill 2019, p. 282.

28 Ibid., p. 282.

29 Cahill 2019, p. 27; Haugh 2019, p. 106.

30 Cahill 2019, p. 40; Haugh 2019, p. 107.

31 Kemmy 1976, p. 46; Cahill 2019, p 22; Haugh 2019, p. 107.

32 Soldier Hunter Vol. 1, No. 1, 23 February 1918.

33 Kemmy 1976, p. 47; Cahill 2019 p. 21; Haugh 2019 p. 109.

34 Kemmy 1976, p. 47.


workers from Limerick worked outside of the boundaries of the military zone, so had to endure this process in order to simply go to work each day. 35

In response to this controversial act of suppression, the Trades and Labour Council – a local body consisting of representatives of all local trade unions – held an emergency meeting. At this meeting, it was agreed that a general strike would be called for the following day.36 The strike was declared on 13 April 1919, a mere week after Byrne’s death. A Strike Committee was formed by members of the Trades and Labour Council. John Cronin, a skilled carpenter and delegate of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters, was elected Chairman. James Casey, treasurer of the Trades and Labour Council, became the Committee treasurer. Another prominent Committee member was James Carr, an engineering worker.37 The Committee formed subcommittees responsible for propaganda, finance and food.38 Some “sympathetic” shopkeepers were granted permission to open their doors in return for currency issued by the Strike Committee. According to Jeremiah Cronin, a local IRA member, there was no single instance in which a local shopkeeper refused to accept the token currency.39

This new, worker-controlled operation of the county came to be known as the Limerick Soviet. The Strike Committee never formally titled the new, worker-controlled governance of Limerick a ‘Soviet’. However, the name was widely used in media coverage of the strike and was not met with opposition by local activists. Ruth Russell, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, reported that John Cronin confirmed that the governance of the Committee constituted a Soviet in an interview conducted at the outset of the general strike.40 Historians have continued to use the title of the ‘Limerick Soviet’. According to Liam Cahill, the events of Limerick fulfilled many of the criteria to be regarded as a ‘Soviet’: the workers’ Committee “organised and managed political and civil society within most of Limerick city” and did not take over private property simply because

“so long as shopkeepers were willing to act under the soviet’s dictates there was no practical reason to commandeer their premises”.41 Similar worker-initiated seizures of governmental offices and industries took place in other parts of Europe in 1919. In the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917, some of these socialist uprisings culminated in sustained worker-led re- organisation of cities, such as the Bavarian Socialist Republic and the Hungarian Soviet Republic.42 Consequently, the word ‘Soviet’ was widely understood to denote worker-led seizure of political power and operation of the economy and civil society within a city or locality. Demonstrating their

35 Cahill 2019, p. 21.

36 Ibid., p. 300.

37 Ibid., p. 77.

38 Ibid., p. 78.

39 Jeremiah Cronin Witness Statement (WS 1423), Bureau of Military History

40 Ruth Russell, “What’s the Matter with Ireland?” (1920), quoted in Cahill, 2016, p. 106.

41 Cahill 2019, pp. 273—274.

42 D. Lee 2003, pp. 288—290; Pelz 2016, pp. 120—124.


embrace of the phenomenon of small-scale Soviets, subsequent strikes and workplace occupations carried out in Limerick were explicitly titled ‘Soviets’ by the workers involved.43

The Limerick Soviet did not endure for long. On 25 April, workers who did not require a military permit to travel to their workplace were instructed to return to work, and a full resumption of work commenced on 28 April.44 The demise of the Limerick Soviet can, in part, be attributed to the lack of support from the national trade union movement. The ITUC declined to initiate a general strike in solidarity with Limerick. Instead, they created a scheme to evacuate the workers of Limerick from their county.45 This scheme was met with scepticism from Limerick residents.

John M. MacCarthy, a member of the East Limerick Brigade during the strike, reported that this directive was the only occasion upon which he “wilfully disobeyed a military order.” In his view, the directive reflected “more than an undertone of hysteria” and would be viewed by the people of Limerick as “unrelated to the needs of the actual situation”.46 Therefore, the evacuation did not take place and the general strike ceased. While the Soviet did not endure, it succeeded as a protest against military suppression, as the military restrictions Limerick had been subjected to were officially ended on May 5, 1919.47

Furthermore, the Limerick Soviet inspired further strikes and occupations both in Limerick and elsewhere in Ireland. One notable subsequent Soviet was the ‘Knocklong Soviet’ of May 1919, established by the workers of Cleeves Creamery in Knocklong, a village in Limerick County. Much like the Limerick Soviet, the Knocklong Soviet was driven by prominent agitators of the local branch of the ITGWU.48 In protest at an unresolved wage dispute, workers seized control of thirteen creameries. They displayed a banner reading “Knocklong Soviet Creamery: We make butter not profits”, and a red flag was flown.49 Their protest was a success, as the Cleeves family was forced to concede to their employees’ wage demands. This success, in turn, inspired further strikes and occupations directed against the Cleeves company.50 David Lee suggests that prolonged occupations, in combination with the challenges of domestic political conflict, left Cleeves

“economically battered and psychologically bruised” by the end of the Irish War of Independence.51

43 D. Lee 2003, p. 299.

44 Cahill 2019, p. 183.

45 John M. MacCarthy Witness Statement (WS 883), Bureau of Military History.

46 Ibid.

47 Cahill 2019, pp. 303—4.

48 Haugh 2016, p. 153.

49 Lee 2003, p. 295.

50 Ibid., p. 296

51 Ibid., p. 305.


Previous Research

The absence of public awareness and academic discussion of the Limerick Soviet are indicative of a broader pattern of labour and socialist movements being marginalised in popular histories and commemorations of the Irish Revolution. Following the partition of Ireland, the newly established Irish Free State sought to forge an independent identity, in part by furnishing a coherent national mythology distinct from those of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As part of this myth-making process, the history of Ireland’s struggle for independence was interpreted in accordance with the self-image and political priorities of the Free State.52 As a result, hegemonic narratives of the Revolution are prone to adopting a “deterministic” vision of nationalism, focusing on strands of nationalist thought which came to dominate Ireland in the 1920s and 30s while marginalising competing ideologies.53 This marginalisation is reflected in commemorative traditions and popular culture. Diarmaid Ferriter suggests that socialist elements of Irish history have been deliberately excluded from popular and official narratives, with major commemorations demonstrating a

“determined effort to side-line the labour movement in promoting the nationalist narrative”.54 Historical analysis of the events of the Limerick Soviet is scarce, but a few authors have published accounts of the events of the general strike. One of the most comprehensive publications on the subject is Liam Cahill’s book The Forgotten Revolution, first published in 2016. Cahill, a former official of the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland, provides an extremely detailed account of the events preceding the strike and how the strike itself unfolded.55 His interpretation of the strike particularly emphasises the importance of the ITGWU. More recently, a book commemorating the centenary of the Limerick Soviet was published in 1919 by Dominic Haugh. Haugh’s account of the strike seeks to emphasise the important contributions of local activists in its initiation, particularly of Sean Dowling, a socialist who has been described as the “philosophical begetter” of the Limerick Soviet.56. Aside from this emphasis, Haugh’s analysis differs from Cahill’s in its detailed account of labour disputes and trade union activism in Limerick throughout the nineteenth century and leading up to the Revolutionary period. By outlining many decades of developments in local trade unionism, Haugh’s book re-contextualises the events of the Soviet, presenting the general strike as the climax in a long history of local strikes and agitation.

While these recent books are among the first publications to provide comprehensive accounts of the history of the Limerick Soviet, both Cahill and Haugh are indebted to the research of Jim Kemmy, a socialist activist and former mayor of Limerick who published numerous articles

52 The process of national-myth making as part of state-formation processes, particularly in relation to the enshrinement Catholic moral teaching in governance, is discussed in Michael G. Cronin, ‘Impure thoughts’, 2012, pp. 52—55.

53 Foster 2014, p. 18.

54 Ferriter 2015, p. 120.

55 Queally 2010, p. 2.

56 Haugh 2019, p. 25.


on the Soviet in a local socialist newspaper, the Limerick Socialist, during 1972 and 1973. Kemmy sought to assess radical ideas which inspired the strike, and his Limerick Socialist articles frequently use interviews with strike participants printed in “official” newspapers such as the Limerick Leader.57 Kemmy’s detailed and thorough research provided the groundwork for historians seeking to study the general strike in subsequent decades.58 In addition to publishing numerous articles of his own, Kemmy also curated an archive of documents connected to the Limerick Soviet and trade unionism in Limerick, which has been used extensively in the development of this thesis. Consequently, while Kemmy was not a professional historian himself, his dedicated research into the Limerick Soviet has played a crucial role in preserving and popularising this chapter of Irish labour history.

The Limerick Soviet has been a subject of interest among trade unionists and socialists in Ireland for many decades, and this is reflected in the historiography of the Soviet, much of which is produced by people who are involved in political activism. Another of the earliest publications dedicated to discussing the general strike is a publication by the self-described Trotskyist historian D. R. O’Connor Lysagt.59 O’Connor Lysagt’s article ‘The Story of Limerick’ reflects his political outlook, as he depicts the Soviet as an example of an alternative, more promising path Ireland could have taken and laments the demise of the Soviet as it was “betrayed” by the wider labour movement.60 Consequently, O’Connor Lysagt appears to measure the Soviet against his own ideological objectives rather than emphasising the objectives and outlooks of historical actors.61 A similar tendency is apparent in Haugh’s 2019 work, in which he asserts that “The Soviet holds important lessons for the workers movement and for left activists”. Haugh then reflects upon the radical potential of the Soviet and the reasons for its “failure”.62 While these researchers have each produced extremely valuable work by documenting in detail the events of the strike, this thesis will deviate from their analytical approaches by bypassing assessments of the ‘successes’ or ‘failures’ of the Soviet and the ‘lessons’ it offers activists today. Conversely, my thesis is concerned with uncovering a plurality of aims and ambitions which motivated workers to embrace direct action.

Therefore, this thesis primarily uses these accounts to establish the events of the strike, which have been corroborated across various studies.

In addition to the few publications which focus on the Soviet in particular, this thesis also builds upon the broader historiography of labour disputes, trade unionism and socialism in Ireland as a whole. A prominent historian who has focused upon the more ‘radical’ leftist figureheads of the Revolution is Emmet O’Connor. O’Connor has produced numerous works focusing on the

57 Jim Kemmy, The Limerick Socialist Vol. 1 No. 4 April 1972—Vol. 7 No. 2 February 1973.

58 Cahill states Kemmy was a ‘lone pioneer’ and ‘build a solid foundation on which this book [The Forgotten Revolution] rests.’ (Cahill 2019, p. 13).

59 In a letter to the journal Revolutionary History, O’Connor Lysagt describes himself as “the only independently-published Trotskyist historian in Ireland” (O’Connor Lysagt 1996).

60 O’Connor Lysagt 1979.

61 Ibid.

62 Haugh 2019, p. 21.


history of labour disputes and trade unionism in Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These include a biography of ITGWU founder Jim Larkin, and the first book ever published specifically on the subject of syndicalism in Ireland.63 O’Connor examines the distinctive qualities of the ITGWU’s approach to trade unionism, discussing how and why it advocated syndicalist strategies such as sympathetic striking and labour militancy. His research promotes recognition of the strength of the ITGWU at the outset of the War of Independence, presenting it as an influential organisation that succeeded in harnessing the power of previously unaffiliated

‘unskilled’ workers.64

While the ITGWU did not explicitly define itself as a syndicalist union, historians regard the union to have been heavily inspired by the principles of syndicalism. As O’Connor argues, syndicalism was never a cohesive, coherent philosophy.65 Rather, it can be considered a

“philosophy of action”, more concerned with endorsing worker-initiated direct action than with developing a unifying doctrine.66 Therefore, it is argued that strategies such as sympathetic striking and workplace occupations which characterised the activities of the ITGWU reveal its “syndicalist character”.67 Accordingly, its activities have been compared and contrasted with contemporaneous syndicalist organisations in other countries, including Spain, Italy and France. Ralph Darlington’s comparative approach to analysing the growth of syndicalism after the First World War contextualises labour unrest in Ireland by presenting it as one portion of a transnational revolutionary movement. His analysis demonstrates that labour leaders in Ireland endorsed strategies inspired by events they had witnessed in other nations and conceptualised revolution in accordance with ideological frameworks popularised abroad.68 Darlington’s comparative studies have been crucial in my efforts to identify how Limerick’s labour movement was influenced by international political currents and what aspects of local activism deviated from the norms of the global syndicalist movement.

Lastly, the events of Limerick can be connected to global anti-colonial activism which occurred in the years following the First World War. The Irish War of Independence is one facet of an international “Crisis of Empire” which occurred from 1919 to 1922. During these years, the British Empire faced an onslaught of challenges, with attacks on imperial authority occurring in Africa, India, and Ireland.69 This international upheaval strongly influenced the political landscape of Ireland, inspiring anti-colonialist thought and demands for political recognition for Ireland’s right to self-determination. The influence of such currents of thought can be seen in the events of the general strike in Limerick and appeals to the principle of self-determination permeate the

63 O’Connor 1988, p. xi.

64 Ibid., pp. 193—222; O’Connor 2011, pp. 75—88.

65 O’Connor 1988, p. xvii.

66 Darlington 2013, p. 19.

67 O’Connor 1988, xvii.

68 Darlington 2008.

69 Gallagher 1981, p. 355.


contents of workers’ newspapers. Consequently, existing scholarship discussing decolonisation and the concept of self-determination will provide an additional backdrop to my analysis of popular ideology in Limerick.

Theoretical Perspectives

Existing historiography of the Revolutionary period displays a tendency to view ideologies as uniform and coherent entities. In many instances, diversities within ideologies are obscured and broad ideological frameworks are reduced to a few generalised characteristics. However, some historians have identified and criticised this tendency. In the case of Irish nationalism, Katy Hayward endorses the concept of “multiple nationalisms”, arguing that the Irish Revolution was characterised by a range of nationalisms competing for space and influence.70 Hayward identifies three broad categories of Irish nationalism – unionist, constitutional and republican – but emphasises that there is great diversity even within these core groups, with differentiation visible in nationalists’ formulations of national identity, territory and state.71 The Limerick Soviet can be regarded as evidence of the diversity of perspectives among Irish republicans. Within Limerick, there were 4,600 Sinn Féin members by the end of 1917, and 2,600 people were part of the republican paramilitary the Irish Volunteers.72 Members of republican paramilitaries were actively involved in the operation of the Soviet.73 Therefore, while a large sector of the population aligned themselves with the republican cause, their political outlook differed greatly from the conservative Catholicism commonly associated with Irish republicanism.

My analysis will be predicated upon the idea that ideologies encompass a range of concepts, and that there is variation and contestation within any given ideology. Michael Freeden states that ideologies are “complex combinations and clusters of political concepts in sustainable patterns.”74 In this thesis, I will attempt to identify patterns of ideas and opinions and highlight variation and contestation between and within ideologies. The working classes of Limerick were not a homogenous group, and the ideas they endorsed were diverse and, at times, contradictory. Rather than seeking to identify a ‘dominant’ mode of political thought or draw generalisations, I will instead explore reasons why such diverse ideological tendencies nonetheless provoked many workers to collaborate against a common injustice.

Another common shortcoming of analyses of popular ideology in Revolutionary Ireland is the tendency to dichotomise ideological traditions. This tendency is particularly pronounced in

70 Hayward 2009, p. 64.

71 Ibid., pp. 64—7.

72 Cahill 2019, p. 222; Haugh 2019, p. 101.

73 John M. MacCarthy witness statement (WS 883), Bureau of Military History; Jeremiah Cronin witness statement (WS 1423), Bureau of Military History.

74 Freeden 2003, p. 51.


analyses of the more ‘radical’ trends of political thought. For example, the dichotomisation of syndicalism and nationalism is apparent in Emmet O’Connor’s earlier publications, including his book Syndicalism in Ireland (1988). In this book, O’Connor claims nationalism had minimal impact on the labour movement, arguing “people join trade unions to improve their wages and conditions, not to express a national identity”.75 However, in accordance with Freeden’s definition of ideologies as “clusters of political concepts”, this thesis seeks to highlight instances of the interlinkage of nationalist and syndicalist concepts.76 The rhetoric of workers in Limerick displays a fusion of syndicalist and nationalist principles, demonstrating that these ideologies could be mutually supportive rather than mutually excluding.

As previously discussed, existing accounts of the Limerick Soviet are also prone to judging the “successes” and “failures” of the Soviet. While not explicitly stated, these judgements appear to be a measure of the degree to which the workers challenged the architecture of capitalism in Ireland and enacted change associated with socialism. For example, D. R. O’Connor Lysagt states that Limerick “does not need to apologise for its Soviet … for two short weeks, the city had shown Ireland the vision of the Workers’ Republic”.77 Additionally, O’Connor Lysagt suggests that the aftermath of the strike does not support the notion “that the national question got in the way of the social question”, thereby implying nationalism could be detrimental to the types of social change his analysis endorses.78 The inclination to judge or favour certain ideological traditions is not limited to commentaries of the Limerick Soviet, however. Among commentators of many disciplines, nationalism is commonly assumed to be a “primitive” ideology and is perceived to hold less intellectual weight than other ideologies.79 However, in order to study ideology, the researcher must first understand the assumptions contained within an ideology and put themselves “in the shoes of the ideological promoter”. 80 This takes precedence over arriving at personal judgements about the value of a given ideology.81

Therefore, my analysis of workers’ newspapers will not attempt to evaluate the positions advocated by workers according to their merits. Instead, it will attempt to consider what different ideologies offered to those who propagated them. This is an approach that embraces and emphasises the subjectivities of ideological promoters. In his book Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot asserts the importance of incorporating the voices and subjectivities of historical actors into accounts of the past. He suggests that there is no way of describing a strike without making

75 O’Connor 1988, p. xvii

76 Freeden 2003, p. 51.

77 O’Connor Lysagt, 1979.

78 Ibid. This implication corresponds with a broader narrative of the Revolutionary period which claims the interests of labour were subordinated to nationalist objectives, as will be discussed on page 26.

79 Freeden 2003, p. 71.

80 Ibid.

81 Ibid.


“the subjective capacities of the workers a central part of a description”.82 Trouillot argues that narratives of a strike need to incorporate workers’ voices “in the first person”, as this alone enables the historian to understand why workers decide not to work and the objective they are attempting to pursue.83

A related theoretical debate surrounds the question of how ideologies are created and transmitted. According to Marx and Engels, ideologies constitute illusions that are propagated by rulers in order to control and dominate the proletariat.84 While this model of ideology has been revised and contested over the decades, its core assumptions still underpin certain narratives surrounding popular ideology. One manifestation of this continuity is “agitator theory”, which proposes that worker militancy and popular protest are the outcomes of workers being either inspired, or, in less sympathetic narratives, duped, by ideologues and agitators.85 This narrative is evident in contemporaries’ accounts of the Limerick Soviet and some recent analyses. Conversely, Emmet O’Connor portrays the militancy of the syndicalist movement as emanating almost entirely from the “rank-and-file” of labour organisations, with leaders tending more towards conservatism.86

However, both explanations for the growth of worker-led agitation typically neglect to systematically analyse the ideas expressed by the workers themselves. While the ideas and writings of intellectuals are assessed, only the activities of workers are considered, not their own rhetoric, publications and testimony. As a result, historians fail to account for how working-class people could interpret and reformulate the ideas transmitted to them by leaders, intellectuals and agitators.

Ideology is assumed to be either foisted upon workers or of marginal relevance to their actions, as the ability of workers to criticise, amend or rework ideologies they encounter is entirely overlooked.

Therefore, my thesis will be centred on the perspectives of workers themselves, as opposed to leaders and intellectuals. Analysis of this type is consistent with the historical tradition of ‘history from below’. ‘History from below’ was initially embraced by British Marxist historians and came to represent a ‘theoretical tradition’ based on the proposition that class struggle is central to the historical process.87 Since the 1960s, ‘history from below’ has been influenced by a desire to recover the voices of those who are marginalised due to their class, ethnicity or gender.88 In line with such aims, this thesis will focus on the ideas of those whose voices are commonly absent from the historical narrative. It will not only re-centre the ideas of working-class people, but it will seek recognition for the contributions of sectors of the working classes whose views and actions are especially marginalised, namely working-class women.

82 Trouillot 2015, p. 23.

83 Ibid., p. 24.

84 Freeden 2003, p. 6.

85 Darlington 2008, p. 84.

86 O’Connor 1988, p. xix.

87 Green & Troup 2016, p. 70.

88 Ibid., page 453.


Sources and Method

In order to uncover the perspectives of workers, this thesis will extensively analyse newspapers produced by citizens of Limerick city and county between the years of 1916 and 1920. The Easter Rising is commonly regarded to be a pivotal moment in Irish history which provoked a rapid escalation of republicanism. As previously discussed, during the four years that followed, both the ITGWU and Sinn Féin first experienced rapid growth in the local population. Consequently, this four-year period represented a transformative period in the history of Limerick, in which syndicalism and republicanism emerged as powerful popular movements.

Issues of various newspapers produced within Limerick are preserved in archives curated by Jim Kemmy at both the University of Limerick and the Limerick City and County Museum.

For the purposes of this thesis, I will primarily analyse issues of three different newspapers.

These are the Factionist, the Bottom Dog, and the Workers’ Bulletin. These newspapers have different political alignments and agendas and offer varying perspectives on the circumstances in Limerick and the ideologies which circulated in the county prior to the general strike. My source base has been limited to issues of these newspapers which are accessible on digital archives. This

encompasses 33 copies of the Factionist published between 17 May 1916 and 20 September 1917, nine issues of the Bottom Dog published between 7 November 1917 and 1 June 1918, and five issues of the Workers’ Bulletin published during March and April of 1919.

In addition, a few issues of other newspapers which are included in the Jim Kemmy archives have been assessed, including issues of the Irish Republic and the Soldier Hunter. Three issues of the Irish Republic are accessible, each published between 7 July 1917 and 16 February 1918. Additionally, one issue from the Soldier Hunter is digitally accessible, which was published in February 1918. These newspapers use nationalistic imagery, but since I could not access a greater number of issues, I have not been able to substantially explore their particular agendas and political positions. Consequently, these newspapers are primarily used to corroborate perspectives that are offered in more widely available newspapers. Lastly, I have analysed one issue of the Red Flag, a newspaper produced by law clerks affiliated with the ITGWU who engaged in strike action shortly after the demise of the Limerick Soviet.89 In total, fifty-two issues of ‘unofficial’

newspapers circulated in Limerick have been analysed in the development of this thesis.

Both the Bottom Dog and the Factionist were published anonymously, but editors of each newspaper have now been identified by historians. In spite of the newspaper’s own claims to the contrary, the publication of the Factionist is attributed to Michael Gleeson. 90 Gleeson owned a

89 Cahill 2016, p. 277

90 O’Callaghan 2011, p. 185.


printing works on Cornmarket Row which was repeatedly raided by the authorities in an attempt to suppress publication.91 The newspaper openly supports the local branch of Sinn Féin, and largely discusses Ireland’s struggle for independence. However, it also provides some

commentary on labour disputes and remarks on the local living and working conditions, thereby providing an insight into how republican and labour concerns could intersect.

Conversely, the Bottom Dog is an openly socialist newspaper that secondarily endorses nationalistic objectives. The newspaper was established and edited by Ben Dineen, an active member of the Limerick Bakers’ Union. 92 Cahill reports that the newspaper was written and circulated by prominent members of the Limerick United Trades and Labour Council until it ceased publication shortly after Dineen’s death in 1918.93 Due to Dineen’s background as a baker and the content of the newspaper, which discusses living and working conditions of the local working-class community, the Bottom Dog has been described as “Limerick’s first working-class newspaper”. 94 Both the Factionist and the Bottom Dog likely had a range of contributors, and the exact socioeconomic background of authors is not known. Nonetheless, both newspapers exhibit extensive and intimate knowledge of the experiences of working-class people in Limerick. Local employees and employers are referred to by name, and the wages and working hours of various local people are specified.95 Therefore, while it cannot be irrefutably demonstrated that all contributors to this paper were themselves local workers, it is apparent that authors of both newspapers were very well acquainted with the plight of employees of Limerick’s factories, shops, bakeries and other workplaces.

One difficulty associated with the analysis of informally distributed newspapers is the absence of verifiable information about the scope of their audiences. There is no recorded data to indicate how widely the newspapers were distributed since they were not sold through official press channels. Official newspapers of the time reported that the Factionist had a ‘fairly large circulation’, and Cahill asserts that the Bottom Dog had a broad readership.96 In one issue of the Bottom Dog, the newspaper proclaims that it sold 8,335 copies in the previous week, although this may be an exaggeration.97 However, as previously explained, my thesis will not attempt to identify a dominant mode of political thought or to draw generalisations about the beliefs of the

91 “Police Seize the Second Irish Paper”, New York Times, 20 July 1919.

92 Haugh 2019, p. 82.

93 Cahill 2019, p. 216.

94 Kemmy 1976, p. 45.

95 Examples of references to local wages, employers and employees are included in Bottom Dog, No. 2, 7 November 1917; No. 25, 6 April 1918; No. 24, 30 March 1918, and the Factionist Vol 1., No. 23, 5 July 1917, Vol. 2, No. 9, 13 September 1917.

96 Cahill 2019, p. 216.

97 Bottom Dog No. 2, 7 November 1917.


population of Limerick. While precise readership figures are unknown, the newspapers still provide a crucial insight into the political climate of the county. The arguments publishers make will not be assumed to be representative of the views of the entire population of Limerick, but rather, indicative of forms of rhetoric that circulated in the county before and during the general strike.

The informal method of distribution also means it is difficult to ascertain who made up the audiences of these newspapers. However, the content of newspapers and their stated aims

provide some indication of who their intended audiences were. The Bottom Dog professes to speak on behalf of all “Bottom Dogs”, meaning all people who are oppressed on the basis of “class, nation or sex”.98 However, it primarily writes on behalf of the local labour force, reporting

specifically on employment conditions of low-ranking employees in stores, factories, bakeries and creameries. Meanwhile, the Factionist appears to cater towards those with separatist nationalist views. The newspaper was printed in defiance of the state’s efforts to suppress its publication and appears to delight in the police’s failed attempts at censorship, defying “imitation detectives and fat-headed peelers of Limerick to locate us”.99 Such taunting reveals publishers were confident in their ability to post whatever they chose without consequence, and the newspaper repeatedly endorsed unlawful and militant forms of Republican activism.100 Therefore, the intended audience of the Factionist was likely Sinn Féin supporters, members of the Irish Volunteers and their allies.

The newspaper displays no attempt to accommodate alternative views on the “National Question”, openly mocking the more moderate Irish Parliamentary Party for its willingness to negotiate with the British government.101

The Workers’ Bulletin is referred to in existing literature discussing the Limerick Soviet as the newsletter produced by the Soviet’s propaganda sub-committee.102 However, contained within the University of Limerick archives are editions of a newspaper with the same title which predate the initiation of the general strike, with the earliest issue dating back to 27 March 1919. One explanation is that two different Limerick newsletters shared the same title in the spring of 1919.

However, issues of the Worker’s Bulletin printed in March and April of 1919 use the same fonts and formatting styles.103 Furthermore, all issues of the Bulletin published prior to the Strike are

98 This quote is the slogan of the Bottom Dog which appears at the header of every issue assessed in this thesis.

99 The Factionist, Vol, 2, No. 4, 9 August 1917.

100 For example, the Factionist, No. 2, Vol. 1, 20 September 1917; No. 9, Vol. 1, 29 March 1917; No. 16, Vol. 1, 17 May 1916.

101 The Factionist, No.1, Vol. 1, 27 January 1917; No. 21, Vol. 1, 21 June 1917; No. 16, Vol. 1, 17 May 1916.

102 Cahill 2019, 308; Haugh 2019, 134.

103 While there is variation in appearance and formatting between issues (including the placement of the apostrophe in ‘Workers’/Worker’s), The Worker’s Bulletin No. 7, 27 March 1919 and Vol. 1, No. 3, 18 April 1919 have identical headers and distinctive use of borders. The latter exclusively discusses the Soviet and activities of the Soviet Strike Committee.


nonetheless signed “Published by the Strike Committee at their Offices, National Monument, Limerick”. These issues reflect on growing radical sentiments in Limerick and provide accounts of specific labour disputes ongoing in the county. Similarly, for the duration of the Soviet, the Workers’ Bulletin updated the population about the events of the strike through an explicitly anti- capitalist lens.104 Consequently, it appears that March editions of the Workers’ Bulletin were a precursor to the newspaper printed by the Strike Committee during the Soviet and were also produced by members of the Trades and Labour Council. This view is supported by the numbering of issues, as editions of the Bulletin published during the general strike are labelled

‘New Series’ and renumbered from Vol. 1, No. 1. Therefore, it appears that a body of workers labelled themselves ‘the Strike Committee’, had assumed offices in central Limerick, and took responsibility for alerting the population to local labour disputes shortly before the initiation of Limerick’s general strike.

However, the exact authorship of all issues of the Bulletin cannot be verified. Therefore, much like the other newspapers, the Workers’ Bulletin will be used to indicate what ideas were circulating in Limerick County before and during the strike. The newsletter provides detailed insights into strikes predating the Soviet, and issues published during the general strike itself display how the events of the strike could be framed by local workers. Consequently, in spite of its ambiguous authorship, the newspaper is a valuable resource in uncovering the lived

experiences and perspectives of workers in Limerick.

One limitation of each of these newspapers is that they appear to primarily address the experiences and concerns of people working in Limerick city, and do not extensively account for the particular experiences of agricultural workers living in the rural areas of Limerick county. The general strike encompassed both the city and county of Limerick, and much of the county was not urbanised to the same extent as Limerick city, with many inhabitants living in towns with less than 500 residents.105 While many of the ideas and issues discussed in newspapers examined in this thesis do not outright exclude agricultural labourers, they display a more intimate knowledge of the experiences and demands of the residents of Limerick city. Consequently, while the particular experiences and motivations that led agricultural labourers and inhabitants of rural areas to participate in the general strike is a subject well worthy of its own study, access to their distinct perspectives would demand a different methodology to the one employed in this thesis.

This thesis will also utilise ‘witness statements’ which have been compiled by the Bureau of Military History (BMH). The BMH was established in 1947 and aims to assemble material to

104 Worker’s Bulletin Vol. 1, No. 3, 18 April 1919; O’Callaghan 2010, p. 121; Cahill 2019, p. 15.

105 O’Callaghan 2010, p. 10.





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