Friday, December 21, 2012

Limerick Soviet 1919 - preserving the workers' heritage

5 shilling banknote issued by Limerick Soviet, 1919
This banknote was issued by the Limerick Soviet that existed from 15 to 27 April 1919.  "Soviet" (meaning a self-governing committee) had become a popular term after 1917 from the workers’ soviets that had taken over factories in St Petersburg and Moscow and had formed the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic.

At the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, a general strike was organised by the Limerick Trades and Labour Council, as a protest against the British army's declaration of a "Special Military Area" covering most of Limerick city and a part of the county. The soviet ran the city for the period, printed its own money and organised the supply of food.

According to labour historian Liam Cahill, the Limerick Soviet and general strike was one of the most important events in modern Irish history. It was the only occasion that organised Labour challenged Sinn Féin and the IRA for leadership of the increasingly powerful movement for Irish independence from Britain.  He claims “It held within its momentous events the prospect that the coming revolution in Ireland would be not merely political, but economic and social as well.”

For sale: the workers' heritage

Last week a banknote similar to the one illustrated was lot 418 in an auction in Limerick, provoking trade union members to threaten to picket the auction house to prevent it being sold out of the city. John Douglas, vice president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, told the Irish Examiner that the note should be kept in Limerick, and any sale to an outside bidder would be seen as disrespectful to the workers who ran the Limerick Soviet for two weeks in 1919.

The following day, 13th December, the Limerick Leader reported that Limerick Trades Council had secured the banknote for €1,400. Trades council president Mike McNamara revealed to the paper after the auction that they were prepared to bid as high as €3,500.

Seamus Quinn, president of the Mechanics Institute, and Mike McNamara, president of the Limerick Trades Council, display the banknote after the auction. Picture: Michael Cowhey
The note has now been taken home to the Mechanics Institute on Hartstonge Street.

Mike McNamara told the Limerick Leader:  “It’s a fantastic day for the workers and the trade union movement. It means so much to us. It’s our history and you can’t put a price on history. I think we did the workers of 1919 a great service here today. Most of the Labour politicians in Limerick were borne out of the trade union movement, so it’s a big day for us. We would ask people not to put a price on our heritage, and to come to us with any materials they may have.”


More about the soviet

Two articles worth reading:

•   Remember the Limerick Soviet! from The Red Phoenix, online paper of the American Party of Labor.   (Two of the photos require comment. The funeral of Robert Byrne (first photo) took place in Limerick. The second photo looking like an old school reunion with jackets and ties, is a group shot of the strike committee.)

•  In The Old Limerick Journal, March 1980, by Jim Kemmy, a Limerick stonemason, trade unionist, politician and historian. Thanks to my friend James for this one.  

Jim Kemmy
Both explore the reasons for the demise of the short-lived but powerful Limerick Soviet. There was little support from the rest of the labour movement. One factor discussed is the attitude of Sinn Féin and its affiliated armed wing, the IRA, and divergent accounts of this are on offer. 

According to the Red Phoenix, whilst these organisations offered critical support to the soviet, the party was over-eager to preserve unity between classes and as a result to a degree betrayed the soviet. Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith is quoted, who in January 1919, three months before the strike, wrote: “The General Strike is a weapon that might injure as much as serve. It would be injudicious at present and might be injudicious at any time, unless under extreme circumstances …”.

Jim Kemmy, without mentioning Arthur Griffith’s views, reports on the contrary that Sinn Féin wanted the strike continued and condemned the strike committee for caving in.

The role of the clergy was important too. But of this more another time perhaps.

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