Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland, majoring in English and History.
Ireland has been relatively socialist free throughout its history. However, there have been famous cases of socialism in Ireland, with the Limerick Soviet lasting from the 15th to the 27th of April 1919, being the most famous case. Following from the successes the Bolshevik’s had in their establishment of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, as well as taking inspiration from the 1913 Dublin lock-out, the Limerick Trades and Labour councils decided to strike after martial law was implemented in the city. This meant people had to obtain permits to go about their business. This article will be looking at the strike from several points of view. Firstly, I will look at socialism in a wider context, its origins as well as its role in Irish politics over the years. Next, I will look at the strike itself, what factors brought on the strike, and what exactly happened. I will then go on to look at the War of Independence, which was ongoing at the time of the Soviet, and look at its role in the strike. Finally, I will try to judge the public opinion surrounding the strike, as well as the aftermath of the strike. Through this work, I hope to find out what the perception of socialism was in Ireland at the time of the Limerick Soviet, and how the discussions of Irish socialism have changed over the years.
The idea of Socialism that developed in the nineteenth-century is a complex term with varied interpretations. One of the most prominent English philosophers of the nineteenth-century, John Stuart Mill, has described it as a way to “…unite the greatest individual liberty of action with a common ownership in the raw material of the globe and equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour”. The socialist movement was born out of the deplorable conditions that workers were experiencing after the advent of the industrial revolution. Socialism developed from the writings of Karl Marx. The main crux of the Marxist social theory lies in the idea that society is a progression, that began with slavery, then transitioned to feudalism, and by the time of Marx to capitalism, which finally with the uprising of the lower classes, would culminate in socialism. An important distinction must be made between the term socialism and communism, often used interchangeably. In Ireland in particular many of the aspects of communism were not a part of socialism or were condemned among socialist circles, and many leaders have exploited the banner of Marxism to fulfil their own ends. Many communist regimes have attempted to stop the power of the church, which is not an inherent part of socialism. The socialist movements that spread from Europe soon established themselves in Ireland, as many of the conditions by which socialism grew were also occurring in Ireland.
Socialism in Ireland manifested itself in the founding of the Labour party in 1912, by James Connolly, James Larkin and William O’Brien. It developed as the political outpost for the Irish Trade Union Congress. Although socialist ideas had been prevalent in some circles, such as columns about many aspects of socialism appearing in the Irish Catholic, socialism was largely unknown to the wider public in Ireland prior to 1910. Socialist movements in Ireland and the idea of a general strike gained traction with the Dublin lockout of 1913. However, the Dublin Lockout proved devastating for the unions, and the Irish labour movement, in turn, was decimated and left in financial ruin. The socialist movements behind the Limerick Soviet developed from the Limerick Trades and Labour council, and many of the socialist movements throughout the country showed themselves through the promotion of workers’ rights in the major cities and built-up areas in the country.
The ideals of socialism and the attitudes towards it have varied greatly since socialism’s inception, both in Ireland and the wider world. Emmet Larkin in his article written in 1985, about the rise of socialism in Ireland, is of the opinion that socialism as a concept was never fully formed in Ireland and only existed in the minds of a few labour leaders. Furthermore, in contrast with the earlier writings on socialism in Ireland and the labour movement by Thomas Brady, Larkin contends that the labour leaders James Connolly and James Larkin never preached nor spoke of socialism, merely advocating for workers’ rights and the advent of trade unionism. Early Irish socialists like Brady and the socialist movement wanted to paint a picture of socialism as being perfect, describing Russia as having ‘begun to deluge the vile tyrannies of the capitalist system of the world’. However, this thinking contrasts with Connolly’s own writings at the time. The Soviet Republic in Russia was also an atheist republic that overthrew the church, whereas in Larkin’s opinion, many of the socialist ideas that Connolly wrote about, were linked with his support of the church, as he held many clergymen in high regard.
The change in attitude towards what the labour movement of the early nineteenth-century meant in terms of Irish socialism pervades much of the more recent works on socialism in the country. McGarry in his book detailing the life of Eoin O’Duffy views the socialist movement in Ireland of the early twentieth century as a necessary foil to the fascism of O’Duffy and the Blueshirts, rather than as a viable or important political agenda. McGarry further contends that James Larkin and the socialist movement in Ireland was not as popular as Brady would paint it as in his book. McGarry gives an example of the 1916 rebels being jeered by a crowd who shouted their surprise at ‘educated men being mixed up with Jim Larkin’s crowd’. It shows the willingness that 1920s writers had in claiming a socialist ideal behind the political works of prominent figures, as well as portraying socialism as a political idea that the majority of the population agreed with. Early socialist writers in Ireland, needed to legitimise the movement, rather than give an accurate account of socialism
Socialism in Ireland is juxtaposed with English rule. In 1884, Connolly wrote about the Irish state prior to the English conquering of Ireland. He claimed that Ireland consisted of various different communist groupings throughout the country and that they were only removed when England wished to reform the Irish clans. To Connolly, Socialism meant one thing; the nationalisation of the means of production. That is why the socialist movements in Ireland gained their biggest traction during the early years of the twentieth century culminating in the War of Independence because the Irish socialist ideals were seen as possible through the declaration of a republic.
The Limerick Soviet of 1919 marked the culmination of the efforts of Irish socialism in the early nineteenth century. While the strike itself showed the community aspect of Limerick, as the lower classes were able to unite together to oppose British exploitation of the area, the failure of the soviet in becoming a nationally viable cause, meant that the socialist aspect of the strike was largely ignored. The capitulation of the Limerick Soviet, coincided with the collapse of Irish socialist ideals, as its failure signalled that the new Irish State, would not be a haven for the promotion of the labour ideals of James Larkin and James Connolly. With the end of the War of Independence, socialist values and ideas were suppressed, as the socialist stories such as that of the Limerick Soviet, did not fit the narrative of the United Irish Catholic state, repelling the tyrannical British forces. Recent work has begun to revise this narrative and while the work of some authors like Lysaght was made in association with the trade councils in Limerick and a Labour Party TD, pointing to immediate bias, other works like that of Larkin and Cahill, provide a more nuanced analysis. The voices in support during the Limerick soviet were numerous and were so vibrant that they eventually could not be oppressed, with contemporary writing having re-evaluated the role of socialism during the War of Independence and how important the Limerick Soviet was not only in Limerick history but in Irish history.