Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Limerick Soviet and the concept of meitheal

Bruree Workers' Soviet Mills, 1921 ( )

In this time of strikes, mass unemployment and general discontent, historical examples of successful worker solidarity movements could serve as useful templates for debate. Perhaps the most impressive episode of Irish working class revolt has to be the formation of the Limerick Soviet in 1919. As the war of independence was raging, the British government decided to impose a military curfew on the city of Limerick in April 1919. Limerick was proclaimed as a special military area. This policy enabled the British authorities to gather information about every worker in the city. Henceforth, all people going to and from the city would have to produce identification and receive permits from the British army. These draconian measures enraged the population of Limerick. Henceforth, factory workers would be harassed up to four times a day going and coming from work. Apart from harassment, vital supplies of food, milk and fuel were also disrupted by the military curfew. To discuss the issue a meeting was convened by Limerick United Trades and Labour Council was convened, where a motion was passed to declare a general strike in the city in protest against the British government. The Limerick United Trades and Labour Council’s proclamation was as follows:

‘The workers of Limerick, assembled in Council, hereby declare cessation of all work from 5am on Monday April 14, 1919, as a protest against the decision of the British government in compelling them to procure permits in order to earn their bread.’ For the next 14 days, the strike committee became the effective local government of Limerick. The city was being run directly by a council of workers. The Limerick Soviet was born. All business ceased in Limerick with the exception of the Post Office, which was kept busy through the international media attention the strike would provoke. Once the strike was declared all businesses of the city co-operated. But in order to feed the population, the bakers were allowed to work part-time. Farmers co-operated by delivering vegetables, meat and eggs directly to the workers at prices well below the market value. To communicate their revolutionary ideology to their fellow workers, they printed their own newspaper: The Workers Bulletin. Although the Unions agreed to pay the workers strike pay, some unions such as the National Railway Union refused. Money became particularly scarce, so the Soviet decided to print its own money! The security for the notes, which were rather like food vouchers, would be provided by the stocks of food donated from Cork, Clare and other counties.

However, the British eventually found a zealous ally in the Catholic Church who ordered the workers to abandon the strike, and they in their ignorance submitted to their ecclesiastical masters. Thus the Limerick Soviet came to an end. It could have continued for much longer had not the Church intervened. But, then, one could say the same about so many progressive moments in Irish history. However, the workers did force the British to abandon its military occupation of the city. The Limerick Soviet was not the only worker commune in Ireland at the time. Another soviet was formed in Broadford village in County Clare, when labourers took over a landlord’s estate and ran it themselves. There was another soviet in Knocklong creamery county Limerick when workers took over the premises and ran it themselves. They hoisted the communist red flag over the building with the slogan ‘ Knocklong Soviet Creamery :We make butter not profit’. There is an Irish word which existed long before Karl Marx formulated the theory of communism: meitheal- a group of workers or working party. It is a concept of worker solidarity deeply embedded in Ireland’s historical culture, a unique word the meaning of which we have tragically forgotten. It is the ninetieth anniversary of the Limerick Soviet this month. These stories and the ideals they proclaim are still too little known in Ireland today. When one considers the mess we are in now, one realises why they are consigned to oblivion like rusty machinery in the closed factories of our history.

For more on the Limerick Soviet, read the book ‘ Forgotten Revolution-The Limerick Soviet 1919’ by Liam Cahill.

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