I have just joined the forum - so I hope people don't mind me dragging this one up from the depths of page 3. This post is based on research I have carried out into the workers movement in Limerick as part of a larger body of work. I hope anyone who takes the time to read it will find it informative and interesting.
The TG4 programme did a reasonable job of outlining the events around the workers soviets and their impact - but it was lacking somewhat in putting it into an overall context and the threat the workers movement posed to Sinn Fein.
The first and best known soviet was the Limerick Soviet. Cahill has written in detail about this, although I would take issue with some of his conclusions - in particular his view that the begining of the strike was engineered by Sinn Fein and was conspiratorial. While the Limerick Soviet was a spontaneous response to the actions of the British military authorities in imposing a cordon around the city, the running of the Soviet was based on plans drafted by industrial organisers of the ITGWU during the conscription crisis. In response to the possibility of conscription being imposed on a county or regional basis, Marxists organisers in the ITGWU, like John Dowling (originally from Cobh and a close comrade of James Connolly), drafted a blueprint for establishing a Soviet to organise industrial opposition to conscription. It was this blueprint that was used during the Limerick Soviet. The Soviet posed a serious threat to Sinn Fein. In the event of it spreading to other parts of the country, it could lead to the nationalist struggle being surplanted by the workers movement. As a result, despite giving it nominal support, Sinn Fein worked to undermine the Soviet and put enormous pressure on the leadership of the ITGWU not to call solidarity action. The Soviet eventually collapsed under pressure from the Church, Sinn Fein and, most particularly, the abandonment of Limerick by William O'Brien and Tom Johnson.
In the run up to the Soviet Sinn Fein were under serious pressure from the radicalisation of the local labour movement. From its emergence in Limerick in 1917, the ITGWU had developed rapidly and posed a significant challange to Sinn Fein in the city as the dominant revolutionary movement. In January 1919, the monthly county RIC report stated that Chief Inspector Yeats was of the opinion that the ITGWU was overshadowing the active local Sinn Féin clubs.
In the aftermath of the Limerick Soviet, the scale of strike activity intensified and the ITGWU expanded into County Limerick recruiting large numbers of agricultural labourers and employees of local creameries and flour mills. The next Soviet to be established was in Knocklong in June 1920. John Dowling, who became industrial organiser of the ITGWU in Limerick in early 1918 consciously organised the Knocklong Soviet as a politcal act. A week after the Limerick Soviet and in response to the sell-out by the ITGWU leadership, Dowling had established the Revolutionary Socialist Party in Belfast. At Knocklong, he was joined by two other members of the RSP, Jack McGrath (who had become an ITGWU organiser in Limerick a few weeks previously) and Jack Hedley (an English Marxist). The Knocklong Soviet took over 12 creameries owned by Cleeves in the local area, threw the creamery manager out of the plant in Knocklong and proceeded to run the creameries for five days. They handed back the creameries in return for major concessions on wages and conditions (and the permanent sacking of the manager). The Knocklong Soviet enormously increased the prestiege of the ITGWU and led to a new wave of recruitment to the union.
Land agitation around Ireland developed to a significant degree particularly during 1920. The ITGWU regularly accused farmers of ignoring or hoodwinking Department of Agriculture inspectors and profiteering by hiking up the price of foodstuffs. The Dáil Ministry for Home Affairs described the situation as ‘a grave danger threatening the foundations of the Republic’ and went on to say:
‘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 farmer’s sons… ’
Employers were becoming alarmed at the implications of the class nature of the struggle and were becoming particularly annoyed at the failure of the authorities to suppress law-breaking and violence during strikes. The Irish Farmers Union advocated the establishment of a body, the Farmers Freedom Force (FFF), intended to provide a ‘permanent organised body in each branch…capable of meeting force by force…in the interests of the country and of the farmer’. In response to agricultural labour strikes the ‘F.F.F. should take action as may be required’. The farmers’ organisations made clear their priority in political terms, ‘the F.F.F. is required as a national bulwark against Labour, Socialism and Bolshevism, irrespective of whatever political developments may take place in the country’.
In August of 1921 the ITGWU established the Bruree Soviet when the workers took over the Flour Mills owned by Cleeves. The now customary red flag and tricolour were hoisted over the plant and a banner proclaiming ‘Bruree Workers Soviet Mills we make Bread not Profits’ was hung over the entrance (I have a photo if anyone can explain how to post it). The workers awarded themselves a wage increase of 7s 6d and reduced prices. It is reported that the business proceeded with clockwork precision and a continuous stream of customers called to the bakery ‘all of whom seemed to appreciate the change’. Union officials claimed to have doubled the output of the bakery and that extra workers could be employed. The occupation ended as a result of a conference in Liberty Hall, Dublin on 2 September when, at the pleading of Cleeves, Constance Markiewicz threatened to use the IRA to remove the workers from the plant. The Limerick Leader commented that, when a reporter visited Bruree the previous Friday, the ‘Soviet’ was found to be in control of the village, ‘both industrially and otherwise’.
The threat of the use of the I.R.A. to remove occupying workers also occurred in relation to the Castleconnell ‘Soviet’ some months later. The dispute at the Castleconnell fisheries, owned by Anthony Mackey(a local Sinn Fein councillor), had been ongoing for a considerable period. As far back as October 1920, under the threat of a strike notice, Mackey offered to submit to a Dáil Court for arbitration in the dispute . With Mackey repeatedly avoiding attending arbitration and paying the awarded increases the workers eventually went on strike on 22 October 1921. Within a week Mackey agreed to pay the workers the arbitrators award, but again after failing to do so, the workers occupied the Castleconnell fisheries at the start of December . After almost a month the workers vacated the fisheries under threat from Markiewicz that if they didn't the IRA would be used to remove them by any means necessary. The threats caused revulsion locally and Mackey was forced to concede all the demands of the workers to diffuse the situation.
The truce led to a wave of strike activity. Constance Markiewicz complained that:
‘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’
Workers in Limerick were now objecting to the rulings of the Parish Arbitration courts and threatening strike action over the fact that road stewards were handing out jobs to farmers and their sons, while unemployed agricultural labourers were left with no means of income. In November the ITGWU, on behalf of farm labourers, submitted a claim for the payment of a £4 harvest bonus, to the farmers in the Bulgaden area near Kilmallock. The Dáil sent a written request to both parties asking for the case to be submitted to arbitration. The union agreed but the farmers failed to respond to the request. It appears some workers went on strike during the first week of November 1921, but by 9 November all the workers were out. A meeting of the Limerick Farmers Assoc. offered the Bulgaden farmers the wholehearted support of the organisation.
At this stage the situation deteriorated rapidly. Workers at the dozen or so creameries in the locality refused to accept milk from the strike-bound farmers and as a consequence the farmers demanded action from the Dáil Cabinet. Bulgaden creamery closed down and shortly afterwards a farmer’s house was raided at night and a milk separator that he had purchased to process his own milk was dismantled. As a consequence four of the striking workers were arrested by the I.R.A. The ITGWU called a general strike in Kilmallock and 300 workers marched through Kilmallock behind a red flag demanding the release of the strikers. The following day the workers were released and the general strike ended. The Bulgaden strike continued with no prospect of settlement. On the 26 November the Limerick Farmer’s Association held a meeting in the Glentworth Hotel in Limerick and called on ‘all co-operative creameries not to refuse milk from any farmer who is a member of this Union at the dictates of the ITGWU or any outside body’.
In the middle of December, two more farmer’s houses were raided and milk separators smashed. At this time the farmers once again refused to submit the dispute to arbitration. Violence and sabotage continued. Sometime during the second week of January a local farmer, Patrick O’Donnell, was kidnapped. On the night of Friday 13 January another kidnapping took place near Mallow, this time of Major Hallinan who was a prominent employer in the Bulgaden area. The following night two lorries arrived outside an ITGWU meeting in Kilmallock. Local union organiser Michael Lenihan was asked to step outside where he was bundled into the back of one of the lorries and driven off. Patrick O’Donnell was released about a week after his disappearance with the others being released shortly after.
At this time a deputation from the Irish Farmer’s Union met with Arthur Griffith demanding action be taken against the strikers. The Munster News reported on 21 January that Donncha O’Hannigan O/C of the East Limerick Brigade I.R.A. had declared martial law. Two hundred I.R.A. men were drafted into the Bulgaden area. Small parties of I.R.A. men protected local farmers and armed volunteers patrolled the streets of Kilmallock night and day. Press reports indicate that between £6,000 and £7,000 worth of farm produce was destroyed, separators broken, fencing broken down and cattle driven, tress felled across roads, bridges broken, fairs and markets held up, hay, straw and farm buildings burned down, walls knocked and telegraph and electric light cables severed during the dispute. The strikers were blamed for the violence and destruction but ITGWU organiser Jack McGrath threatened drastic steps against ‘anyone who endeavours to charge members of the union with such occurrences’. Talks were organised by Hannigan and held on 23 January. Both sides agreed to submit to arbitration. Towards the end of February twenty cases were heard at the Parish Court in Kilmallock for breach of curfew during martial law and the commandant prosecuted the individuals and imposed nominal fines. The defeat for the strikers was complete when the Arbitration Board, comprising of Dr. Murnane and Sean Moylan T.D. and presided over by Rev. Fr. Higgins, issued its findings. The board found that the strike was subversive, that the workers had inadequate grounds for claiming the harvest bonus, rejected the claim for payment for the period of the strike and condemned the ‘wanton and cowardly destruction of property’. This dispute was the last major conflict involving farm labourers during this period.
During December 1921 the Cleeves owned Condensed Milk Company of Ireland sought lay-offs and wage cuts of one third among its workforce in Limerick, Cork, Tipperary and Waterford. On 22 December 1921 the ITGWU held a conference in Limerick Junction comprising twenty three delegates representing the workers in sixty eight creameries owned by Cleeves. John Dowling outlined the current level of attacks by employers on dockers, railwaymen and farm workers all over the country. He called on the workers to stand solid and win this dispute. The workers unanimously rejected the proposed cuts in jobs and wages and formed a Workers Committee of Action.
On 3 January 1922 a national conference was organised by the Department of Labour and held at 18 Parnell Square in Dublin. The workers and bosses were located in separate rooms and no progress was made during negotiations. Divisions did appear amongst the ranks of the workers. James Carr who was attending as a representative of the IEU stated that they were willing to do a deal with the Limerick Federation of Employers. Other craft unions followed suit and it was left to The ITGWU, the IADMU and the Irish Commercial Workers Union (ICWU) to oppose the employers. All three unions opposed arbitration and the meeting ended with Cunningham, the company secretary of the Condensed Milk Company of Ireland, questioning why the workers would not trust the government.
The Ministry for Labour supported the employer’s position that wage reductions were necessary and put in place two joint councils to arbitrate in the dispute. Cleeves claimed that by the end of 1921 the company had debts of £100,000 with net losses amounting to £274,555. The unions claimed that the company had made £¾ million between 1918-1919 and were suspicious of the claims of the company. The arbitration system came down on the side of the employers and submitted the proposals to the unions for ballot. When the conciliation council re-assembled on 31 March the result of the ballot showed a very large majority against the proposals. In the ‘national interest’ a temporary compromise proposal was made that included a one month’s reduction in wages while a new buyer was sought for the Cleeves company, after which the wages would revert back to previous levels. A small majority subsequently passed these proposals.
Despite these efforts to broker an agreement a strike broke out at the Cleeves plant in Landsdowne in Limerick on 13 April. After four weeks, members of the ICWU accepted a wage cut but the ITGWU continued to refuse. As the situation deteriorated, two hundred workers in Clonmel occupied the Cleeves plant on 12 May and established a Soviet. Workers in Carrick-On-Suir occupied the Cleeves creamery and the Condensed Milk factory the following day and before the weekend was out, the Cleeves premises in Kilmallock and Knocklong were also under the workers control. Under direction and co-ordination by John Dowling, Jack McGrath and Jack Hedley, the Workers Committee of Action organised widespread occupations in what became known as the Munster Soviets. The reaction of the pro-treaty administration was swift. In order to prevent striking workers occupying the Landsdowne plant, fully armed regular troops were placed on guard. Farmers demanded immediate action. At a meeting in Geary’s Hotel in Limerick, Mr B. Laffan (Sinn Fein chair of Limerick Co. Council) said that ‘this struggle threatened the very lives and liberties of the farmers’. He claimed that all lawful government was being ignored and he proposed a resolution stating that ‘we forbid our members to supply the red flag, which is the flag of revolution and anarchy…we look for protection from our government to assert our right as free citizens’. A meeting of the Executive of the Irish Farmer’s Union on 18 May took up the demands. The meeting stated that they did not want ‘communism’ in Ireland and delegates claimed that acts of sabotage were being carried out and that farmers were being forced to supply the creameries at gunpoint. Mr. M. Doran stated that ‘if the government would not govern they should be told to get out’, while Rev. Fr. Maguire from Co. Monaghan made an appeal ‘to those responsible for social order to expel those who had invaded private property’.
It must be remembered that these events were occurring precisely at the time that the country was sliding into Civil War. In the initial stages farmers did supply the creameries with full production continuing. Butter was sent to Scotland and Wales. The expelled manager at Carrick-on-Suir, J.Nolan, claimed that the pro-treaty administration requested the British Authorities to send a gunboat to intercept the Welsh cargo. The workers expected that the farmers would continue to supply the occupied creameries as workers at unoccupied creameries were refusing to handle diverted milk. In the early hours of 19 May machinery worth £3,000 was destroyed at the Cleeves creamery in Grange, while the Oakleigh Creamery at Caherconlish was burnt down after receiving milk diverted from other plants. However the farmer’s boycott was beginning to bite. Diverted milk, guarded by regular troops, was delivered to Bridgetown. At the end of May the workers offered to accept a pay cut of twelve percent, but the company rejected the offer. After repeatedly been forced to back down against the determination of the union Cleeves wanted a final victory. The determination of the company coupled with the unwillingness of the ITGWU leadership to actively support the workers increased the likelihood that the strike would be defeated. The strike continued for a further month until the strike committee officially called it off at the end of June.
Despite this many of the Soviets continued. As the Civil War progressed and Free State troops advanced into Munster, the Government was anxious not only to suppress armed resistance to the Treaty but also to deal decisively with ‘bolshevik’ agitation. One of the first acts of the troops when they arrived in a village or town was to immediately suppress any soviet they found and arrest the strike leaders. Little support was forthcoming from an anti-treaty side that did not want the additional difficulties of having to deal with rebellious workers and were hampered by the fact that the sympathies of many republicans lay with the farmers.