“The story of the Limerick soviet has always had a special place in the narrative of the Irish left,” Patrick Smyth wrote earlier this year in The Irish Times. “For two weeks in [April] 1919 the ordinary people of the city took over, creating, albeit briefly, the embryonic elements of workers’ control – or, some would say, a new society – that mirrored developments throughout a revolutionary Europe convulsed and worn down by war.”
The Limerick soviet occurred three months after the establishment of the first Dáil Éireann and the earliest skirmishes of the Irish War of Independence. In Paris, an Irish-American delegation had just arrived at the post-war peace conference to press world leaders to recognize Irish self-determination. The trio would soon visit Ireland; just before Irish leader Eamon de Valera’s June 1919 arrival in America.
The front page of the April 26, 1919, issue of The Irish Press, Philadelphia, declared:
LIMERICK IN STATE OF SIEGE
Remember, the newspaper had direct ties to the provisional government in Dublin through its editor, Patrick McCartan. The Press‘ un-bylined story, datelined four days earlier, vividly set the scene:
This city is an armed camp with large forces of troops supported with tanks and machine guns in control. Numerous shots were fired Monday morning (April 21) but there were no casualties. The troops are in full war panoply, even to their tin hats. All the roads leading into the city are guarded and at some points barbed wire entanglements are set up. The principal bridge over the Shannon is being patrolled. Tanks are drawn up in the principal streets with the guns trained to sweep the thoroughfares. The muzzles of Lewis machine guns peer menacingly from windows of buildings. Armoured cars lumber through the streets and at night the city is patrolled by soldiers with fixed bayonets.
The event also caught the attention of the American mainstream press. Several U.S. newspaper headlines are shown in the video below. Ruth Russell, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, brought readers even closer to the action. This is from her April 10, 1919, dispatch:
“Permit?” demanded the soldier with the bayonet.
Two by two a long dark line up the white road from Caherdavin a thousand workers marched permitless to the Sarsfield bridge over the Shannon at Limerick. Girls with primroses tucked in their waists, breathless boys with hurling sticks in their hands, stooped, mustached laborers.
“What permit? I want to go to my home,” said a workman.
The crowd come with its incessant demand to pass. Past the sentry the workers swung around a corner between the soldiers and Thomas Johnson, national executive of the Irish Trade and Labor council. They swung down the right of the bridge and up the left again–an unending circle picketing the military, whose presence in Limerick they are protesting against.
Russell expanded on her experiences in Limerick in her 1920 book, What’s the matter with Ireland? Jump to page 127.
Cian Prendiville, a contemporary Limerick activist and member of the Limerick Soviet Centenary Committee, has written a two-part remembrance for the Limerick Leader:
- When the people of Limerick took on the British Empire
- How we can apply lessons from the Limerick soviet to today’s changing times.
Below, a 7-minute video explaining the origins and more details of the event: