Soviets in Ireland
A detailed account of the spread of soviets in Ireland from 1919 to 1922
"The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other". David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister, 1919.
The revolutionary wave that swept across the world as a result of the revolutions in Russia and Germany towards the end of the First World War reached Ireland in 1919. Ireland was living in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter uprising, when the socialist and syndicalist James Connolly had thrown in his lot with the Irish nationalists of Padraic Pearse and formed a cross-class alliance against British imperialism. In such a way the Irish working class movement became allied with the Irish national bourgeoisie.
Sinn Fein had been created as an organisation of a section of the Irish national bourgeoisie in 1905. It clearly showed its anti-working class positions from the start. It stood against higher wages for workers, and indeed strikes by them, as this would harm the interests of Irish business. During the Dublin Lockout of 1913, its leader, Arthur Griffith, called for strikers to be bayoneted. Its membership was based on shopkeepers, employers and large farmers.
The Irish Citizen Army which had been created as a defence corps for the 1913 strikers was led into the Easter Uprising by Connolly, alongside part of the nationalist Irish Volunteers led by Pearse. The playwright Sean O’Casey described the Irish Volunteers as “streaked with employers who had openly tried to starve the women and children of the workers, followed meekly by scabs and blacklegs from the lower elements among the workers themselves, and many of them saw in this agitation a plumrose path to good jobs, now held in Ireland by the younger sons of the English well-to-do.”
The Irish Republican Army in direct line of descent from the Irish Volunteers was founded in 1919 and indeed some members of the ICA joined it.
But alongside these developments was the growing influence of the revolutionary wave, that affected even an Irish working class seemingly disorientated by nationalism. There were an increasing number of strikes, and these were reinforced by well-organised pickets, solidarity action from other workers and even the creation of defence units called Red Guards after the worker squads of 1917 revolutionary Russia, as in Naas and Tralee.
The economic context
The Irish capitalists did well out of the boom caused by the First World War. Both manufacturing and agriculture were boosted, as was trade. However the Irish working class saw few of the benefits from this boom. Wages fell behind rising prices caused by inflation. Between 1914 and 1918 the prices of many staples rose by 250-300 per cent. As agriculture was booming, this affected urban workers far more, with an increase of emigration, primarily to munitions factories in England and Scotland. Housing conditions in urban areas were appalling, whilst rents were high. T
The Monaghan Soviet
Peadar O’Donnell was an active militant in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union of Jim Larkin and James Connolly. He had tried to set up a unit of the ICA in Derry in 1919. When this failed he joined the IRA. When workers at the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum went on strike in February 1919 O’Donnell and the strikers occupied the building, and ran up a red flag and declared a soviet. Staff had been working a 93 hour week and had to remain on the premises between shifts. The medical superintendent thought that this was reasonable, as they “get off every 13th day and every fourth Sunday from 10 O’clock”. The occupation (in fact O’Donnell is credited with using the term “occupation” for the first time in Ireland in the sense of seizing a workplace) was met with the arrival of armed police. The workers responded by barricading the building. A 48 hour week was introduced by the strikers. When the authorities offered a pay rise that left out female workers, the soviet pushed for pay equality. In fact, the women strikers proved to be the most determined. The patients themselves aided the strike by exchanging clothes with them to help with the smuggling in of supplies.
The strike was won by February 20th, with a pay rise for both women and men, a 56 hour week, and the right of married workers to go home after shifts.
The Limerick Soviet
Two months later, a soviet was declared in the city of Limerick. Robert Byrne had been active in the workers’ movement and as a member of the Irish Volunteers. In January 1919 he was sentenced by a British military court to a year in prison. He went on hunger strike and subsequently was transferred to Limerick hospital. A rescue attempt resulted in the death of Byrne and a resulting military lockdown of the city. Anyone who wished to enter the area under martial law had to have permits issued by the British Army. No exceptions were made for workers commuting to and from their jobs. As a result the workers at the Condensed Milk Company’s Lansdowne plant went out on strike on 12th April. The Limerick Trades Council threatened to call a general strike and transformed itself into a strike committee. It took over a printing press and produced placards explaining the strike. The strike was successful with 15,000 workers taking part. A daily Workers’ Bulletin was produced which maintained publication throughout the stoppage.
The British Army brought in an extra 100 police and was equipped with an armoured car and a tank, and put up barbed wire along the route to the restricted area. But a Scots regiment had to be sent home quickly when it was discovered that its soldiers were letting workers go in and out of the military area without permits. The rail workers had refused to handle freight in Limerick, except when permitted by the strike committee or where it was under military guard. It was expected that this action would soon become a full scale railway strike. However the national executive of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress –ILPTUC (in fact one single organisation) made no recommendation to broaden the strike. On 21st April, H.R. Stockman speaking for the British TUC in London declared the Limerick strike to be a political strike and instructed the unions whose members were striking, to refuse them strike pay. This was backed up by the executive of the National Union of Railwaymen, which ordered its Irish members to stop any action.
Meanwhile the strike committee were under pressure from the workers themselves. 500 people refused to show their permits on the evening of 21st April. The British army stopped them entering the area, with the support of 500 police and two armoured cars. Most of the defiant crowd stayed the night at a dance hall. They boarded a train next day and avoided the Army by getting out on the side of the station opposite to where the soldiers were waiting. During the following days, soldiers fired shots at a fair when people again refused to show permits. William O’Brien and
Thomas Foran, leading lights in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) and the executive of the ILPTUC, arrived on 20th April, followed over the next two days by the other members of the executive. They told the strike committee that they had no power to call a general strike without the approval of a special conference of the ILPTUC. Instead they proposed that Limerick city should be evacuated by its population. This was clearly to avoid any confrontation with the British Army. This was rejected by the strike committee. Whilst William O’Brien constantly paid lip service to James Connolly, in fact he was a leading advocate of the integration of Labour and the unions into the emerging Republic. As early as 1918, in a speech to fellow ITGWU officials, he talked about strengthening the assets of the unions and integrating the ILPTUC into an independent Ireland. Not only did he exert influence through the ILPTUC, but through domination of the Socialist Party of Ireland, for which Connolly had been an organiser.
The mayor and bishop of Limerick in negotiations with the military appeared to have parleyed an offer that if the Limerick soviet ended, and if for one week there was no trouble, then the military restricted area would be abolished. The strike committee backed down and said that strike notices were withdrawn for workers within the restricted area. This was met with disgust by many, some calling for a second soviet. Some attempted to stop permit holders crossing a bridge but were dispersed by the police. However only half of the strikers returned to work but on 27th April a Catholic priest denounced the strike from the pulpit. The committee caved in, and the general strike ended on 26th April. The following day workers returned to work, except those diehard strikers in the bacon factories. The Limerick Soviet had based itself on a cross-class alliance with shopkeepers, the Limerick Chamber of Commerce, Sinn Fein and the local mayor and elements of the Catholic Church. This had proved its undoing, as had the sabotage by the union and Labour Party leaders, and as had the hold of the Catholic Church over many workers. A potentially revolutionary situation had been undermined.
The Knocklong Soviet
The Limerick soviet was followed a month later by the Knocklong soviet. Creameries owned by the Cleeve family were occupied near Knocklong in County Limerick. The Cleeve family were AngloCanadian supporters of the British Empire and employed more than 3,000 workers and 5,000 farmers in their dairy industries. They were strong recruiters for the British Army in Limerick during the First World War, in the process supplying food to the British Army and making a profit of £1m by the end of 1918. At the same time they were one of the lowest paying employers in Ireland, with average unskilled workers in their plants earning only seventeen shillings a week. Workers seized the creameries and began running them themselves. A red flag was run up over the main building as well as a banner reading: Knocklong Soviet creamery: We Make Butter Not Profits. After 5 days of occupation, the Cleeves agreed to a wage rise, a 48 hour week, 14 days paid holiday, and improved ventilation systems.
The agitation within the Cleeve creameries was led by John Dowling, a socialist and associate of Connolly, along with Sean McGrath and Jack Hedley. The Cleeves responded by trying to lay off workers using a national general strike by the ITGWU against handling British munitions as resulting in a knock-on effect of a “lack of work”. The workers responded by forming a strike committee. The Cleeves now insured the creamery at Knocklong against an outbreak of fire on 24th August, and it so happened that a squad of Black and Tans (British irregular troops) turned up and burnt down the creamery! Soviets spread There were further soviets the following year in Waterford in April. Here the short-lived soviet was set up during a national general strike against the imprisonment of Republican hunger strikers. This strike began on April 13th.
An indication of what was to come was seen on the eve of the strike when a large crowd gathered outside Mountjoy prison in Dublin. This was reinforced by organised groups of dockers and postal workers, whilst leaflets were distributed to the British soldiers appealing to them not to attack the crowd. Then a Sinn Fein member of Dublin Corporation, John O’Mahony arrived with a group of priests, formed a cordon between the crowd and the soldiers, and drove the demonstrators back, with the cry of ”In the name of the Irish Republic, go away”. The Ministry of Home Affairs was to state in 1921: “1920 was no ordinary outbreak…an immense rise in the value of land and farm products threw into more vivid relief than ever before the high profits of ranchers, and the hopeless outlook of the landless men and uneconomic holders…All this was a grave menace to the Republic. The mind of the people was being diverted from the struggle for freedom by a class war, and there was every likelihood that this class war might be carried into the ranks of the republican army itself which was drawn in the main from the agricultural population and was largely officered by farmers’ sons…the republican police had been established just in time to grapple with the growing disorder and withstood the strain upon its own discipline.”
The Bruree Soviet
Another Soviet emerged in County Limerick at the bakery and mills owned by the Cleeves at Bruree. In August 1921 the workers occupied the plant, hoisted the red flag and a banner proclaiming the ‘Bruree Soviet Workers Mill’ and stated that they were now running the mill and would sell at a lower price. The Countess Markievicz, who was now Sinn Fein’s Minister of Labour, did a deal with the Cleeves and threatened to send the IRA against the Bruree Soviet if they did not accept the results of arbitration. The soviet ended on September 3rd 1921. In fact Markievicz was to go on record to later state: “the unemployed are already looking to us to do something towards providing work…one has to face the fact that complaints have come to this office of men of the I.R.A. taking part in labour disputes. Evidence has also come to me that in some areas the workers are not willing to submit to the authority of their Executive and are beginning to get out of hand. What is to be feared in the near future is:- small local outbreaks growing more and more frequent and violent, the immediate result of which will be, destruction of property and much misery which will tend to disrupt the Republican cause”.
Finally at Cork Harbour in September 1921, workers fighting for a pay rise seized the Cork Custom House, again ran up a red flag and declared a soviet. The New York Times was to write: “Cork is a Sinn Fein city, and the strike interested the city not so much from the point of view of the wage war but from the effect it might have on the present national peace negotiations. It was said openly that the act of the strikes amounted to treachery to the nation and it was urged that unless negotiations between the Harbour Board and the strikers were at once resumed, the Irish Republican Army should clear the building of strikers and reinstate the Harbour Board. However, the intervention of the Labour Ministry of the Dail Eireann altered the situation, and the negotiations between the Harbour Board and the strikers were reopened, as a result of which it is expected that a settlement will be arrived at. The men are to resume work pending a decision.”
Other soviets emerged between 1921-1922. The North Cork railway, the quarry and the fishing boats at Castleconnell, a coachbuilding plant and the local gas works in Tipperary (the latter of which was under workers control for 6 weeks), a clothing factory in Rathmines, Dublin, sawmills in Killarney and Ballinacourtie, an iron foundry at Drogheda, Gasworks at Waterford, and mines at Arigna in County Roscommon, Ballingaray in South Tipperary, all saw occupations and declarations of soviets. In addition there was a soviet at Broadford in County Clare, and soviets in Whitechurch, County Dublin, Youghal and Fermoy where the IRA moved in to break them up. At the end of 1921 the Cleeves stated that they were £100,000 in debt and that they had sustained £275,000 losses during the year. On 12th May 1922 they declared a lockout of their workers, putting 3,000 out of work. In response almost 100 creameries were seized and soviets created, the principal ones being at Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir, Bansha, Kilmallock, Knocklong, Bruree, Athlacca, Tankardstown, Ballingady and Aherlow, Bruff, Dromin, Tipperary town, Galtymore, and Mallow.
The Irish Farmers Union now organised a campaign to boycott the occupied creameries and stated that it would "forbid our members to supply under the Red Flag, which is the flag of Anarchy and revolution". At the same time the press began a campaign against the soviets, the Irish Times writing that the occupying workers had “neither allegiance to the Irish free State, nor the Irish Republic, but only to Soviet Russia. In addition Sinn Fein, at the illegally established Irish parliament Dail Eireann denounced the class struggle, saying that it was “ill chosen for the stirring up of strife among our fellow countrymen”. It was known that the leading Free Stater Michael Collins was extremely opposed to the Soviets.
The farmers’ boycott dealt a death blow to many of the soviets. In addition the soviets were now under attack by both the Free State National Army of De Valera and the Anti-Treaty Republicans. There was a shootout between the Tipperary soviet and the anti-treaty forces, who also destroyed the gasworks there. For their part the National Army began destroying the Soviets. The newly established Free State was pressurised by the British government to restore order, to crush both the Anti-Treaty nationalists and the soviets. When the Free State National Army entered a town or village, it arrested leading members of soviets, and tore down signs of radicalism like the red flags.
The Munster News reported in 1922 that martial law had been declared in the Kilmallock area with the presence of 200 IRA volunteers. On 4th March 1922, the IRA arrested Dowling, McGrath and striking workers, accusing them of burning the hay of a Kilmallock farmer. Dowling was severely beaten and kicked whilst on the ground, carrying a permanent scar on his face as a result. Immediately hundreds of workers came out on a general strike in Kilmallock and Dowling and his associates were released a week later. The soviets had been defeated, with the dispersal of the soviets by the Free State and with the ITGWU leaders saying virtually nothing about this. The final phase of this period of heightened class struggle in Irish history began with the “autumn crisis” of 1923 when 20,000 workers went on strike or were locked out. This led to defeat. The ITGWU forced out militant workers, replacing them with careerists and increasing the number of bureaucrats. Dowling, McGrath and Hedley were sacked from their positions in the ITGWU.
The revolutionary wave of 1919 to 1923 had a profound effect on a supposedly backward and rural country like Ireland. The soviets were defeated by a combination of the British Army in occupation, the different nationalist forces whether pro- or anti-Treaty, the employers and big farmers and the Catholic Church, and the ILPTUC. Despite all the odds against them, they had written a page in working class history, a history that is now being re-discovered. The lessons are obvious, the working class can only rely on themselves, and must shun the various nationalist gangs and the clerical obscurantists.
Published in the Anarchist Communist Group theoretical journal Virus 2019.
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