Tag Archives: Limerick soviet

A Journey In Ireland, 1921, Revisited: Murdered mayors

Novelist and journalist Wilfrid Ewart traveled through Ireland from mid-April to early May 1921. His dispatches for London newspapers were later collected and revised in the book, ‘A Journey In Ireland, 1921.’ Previous installments of this centenary series are collected at American Reporting of Irish Independence

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Ewart arrived in Limerick on April 27, less than two months after the city’s mayor and his predecessor were murdered. The visitor interviewed Stephen O’Mara, 76, the city’s first Irish nationalist mayor, from 1885. He tells Ewart that his same-name son, 37, the current Limerick mayor, has just been imprisoned by the British military for not complying with orders.

All of this, Ewart writes, is “very characteristic of Ireland in 1921.”

In January 1921, George Clancy succeeded Michael O’Callaghan as Limerick mayor. Then, between late evening March 6 and early morning March 7, both men were shot dead at their homes. A third man, an Irish Volunteer, also was killed that night, and Clancy’s wife was wounded. The killers belonged to a Royal Irish Constabulary auxiliary unit, potentially in collusion with military authorities, historians say. 

At the time of Ewart’s visit, however, the crimes were as unresolved and divisive as the Irish war. He wrote:

Nothing remains more strange, and nothing more sinister, in a long history of Irish crime than the murders of the two Mayors of Limerick. Strange and sinister in particular, because here are two of the most prominent citizens of one of the largest towns in Ireland done to death in the same night — and to this day none shall say by whom. … A world of intrigue, of punishment or reprisal, of accusation and counter accusation, of suspicion, and semi-certainty then again doubt. … Who shall unravel the truth, or will it ever be unravelled? Will it ever see the light of day?[1]Journey, p. 100.

The two mayors had publicly defended Limerick’s citizens against military and police harassment. Their killings were retaliation for earlier Irish republican attacks, and also intended to terrorize the population.

Michael O’Callaghan, left, and George Clancy.

As Bew/Maume note, Ewart too quickly “entertains the possibility” the two mayors were “killed by IRA hardliners, rather than Crown forces, when he is told this by a fellow British officer.” He fails to show the skepticism he demonstrated about official versions of the burning of Cork.[2]”Introduction”, Journey, UCD Press edition, 2009, p. xv. See In Cork. Pointing fingers at the IRA simply diverted attention from the auxiliaries and sowed doubt and division among Irish separatists. 

Ewart is told this story during a visit to the military’s New Barracks, where he also attempts to unravel the dispute between the authorities and Mayor Stephen M. O’Mara, Jr., Clancy’s successor. An officer says O’Mara, Jr., opted for a week’s imprisonment rather than paying a £10 fine for breaking curfew regulations. Ewart asks to see the imprisoned mayor, but a guard refuses him access and insists O’Mara doesn’t want to receive visitors.

Within days of this episode, the authorities released young O’Mara from jail. He soon sailed to the United States to replace another brother, James, as a fiscal agent in raising funds for the Irish Republic.

Economic conditions

Ewart describes Limerick as an “ugly” place, its “abiding impression” that of a garrison town with limited commerce.  

“The economic history of Limerick was that of the majority of Irish towns in 1921 – you could read it in the look of the place,” Ewart writes. “Trade bad, nobody buying, no ships coming up the river … not a ship to be seen along the quays … progressive decay had set in before the war. Limerick lacks energy, lacks healthy vitality.”[3]Journey, p.78.

Limerick waterfront in the 1920s.

Throughout his travels in Ireland, Ewart repeatedly asks his interview subjects whether Bolshevism is playing a role in the Sinn Féin revolution. “No,” he is told, including by O’Mara, Sr., “a big Limerick bacon manufacturer.”

Ewart does not mention the Limerick soviet of two years earlier. The headline-making general strike by trade unionists protested the military’s heavy-handed lock-down of the city. American journalist Ruth Russell, in the city at the time, highlighted the workers’ strong ties to the Catholic Church, which made their soviet less radical than other Marxist factions.

In her Ireland book, Russell observes how the red-badged guards rose to bless themselves on hearing the tolling Angelus bells of St. Munchkin’s chapel. “Isn’t it well that communism is to be Christianized?”, Bishop Michael Fogarty replies when she describes the scene.[4]Russell, What’s the matter with Ireland?, p. 136 and 142.

Russell also interviewed Alphonsus O’Mara; another son of Stephen, Sr., brother of Stephen, Jr., and predecessor of the murdered O’Callaghan. As Limerick mayor in April 1919, “Phons” helped to end the soviet after two weeks.[5]Ibid, p. 133, and “Will Ireland Go On Strike”, Russell’s April 21, 1919, dispatch from Limerick, Kansas City Star, April 21, 1919. Russell’s Limerick reporting also cited by … Continue reading

In 1921, a century before Brexit, O’Mara, Sr. tells Ewart that England is the “natural market” for Ireland’s eggs, butter, bacon, cattle, and linen. “We might find other markets for ourselves, but England is the natural one and always will be,” he says.[6]Journey, p.88.

NEXT: Ulster attitude

References

References
1 Journey, p. 100.
2 ”Introduction”, Journey, UCD Press edition, 2009, p. xv. See In Cork.
3 Journey, p.78.
4 Russell, What’s the matter with Ireland?, p. 136 and 142.
5 Ibid, p. 133, and “Will Ireland Go On Strike”, Russell’s April 21, 1919, dispatch from Limerick, Kansas City Star, April 21, 1919. Russell’s Limerick reporting also cited by Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in the Revolutionary World. W. W. Norton & Co., New York,  2015, p. 171.
6 Journey, p.88.

Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland: Correspondent

Chicago journalist Ruth Russell reported from revolutionary Ireland in 1919, followed by a year of activism for its independence. This five-part monograph is part of my American Reporting of Irish Independence series. © 2019

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Russell arrived in Ireland the day before St. Patrick’s Day, 1919, a week before her 30th birthday. Over the next few months she reported from Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Belfast, and rural Dungloe in County Donegal.1 At least two dozen of her dispatches appeared in the Chicago Daily News, and other U.S. and Canadian newspapers that subscribed to its foreign news service. 

She was not the only Daily News reporter in Ireland, which had attracted scores of American and other foreign correspondents after Dáil Éireann, the break away parliament of the Irish Republic, was established Jan. 21, 1919. As Maurice Walsh notes, “The Irish revolution became an international media event … The way in which visiting correspondents wrote up the Irish revolution was crucial to its outcome, both in the sense that they affected perceptions of the war and that they connected Ireland to the world.”2

Russell’s 1919 passport photo.

Russell’s first story from Ireland appeared in the Daily News on March 18, 1919, a day after the newspaper recognized St. Patrick’s Day with a full page of “greetings from noted Irish writers to their compatriots in Chicago.”3 She covered the prison release and triumphal Dublin return of Constance Georgine Markievicz, known as “Countess” Markievicz, who in December 1918 became the first woman elected to the British Parliament. As a separatist Sinn Féin candidate, Markievicz won a Dublin constituency while incarcerated for her role in Ireland’s anti-conscription protests earlier that year, months before the armistice.

Markievicz’s election and the Sinn Féin route of old guard Irish parliamentary nationalists received considerable press coverage in America. Her release from prison and decision to join the revolutionary parliament in Dublin was largely ignored by U.S. newspapers, giving Russell a scoop. Her story4 did not contrast Markievicz’s historic election win to American women still struggling for the vote. Her home state of Illinois would not ratify the 19th amendment until June, and U.S. suffrage waited until August 1920. 

Instead, Russell offered a narrative, scene-setting approach to the homecoming that differed from most straight-news reporting of the day. She even placed herself in the action, close enough for Markievicz to whisper an aside. Listen to a lightly edited passage of the story, read by my wife, and reproduced below:

Down one curb of the Eden quay uniformed boys with coat buttons glittering in arc lights were ranged in soldier formations. Up the other curb squads of girls were blocked. All were members of the citizens’ army of the Transport Workers union. … Up in the bare front room of the Liberty hall headquarters, where dim yellow electric bulbs were threaded from the ceiling, the countess welcomed her friends of the days of the revolution of 1916. … With her eyes slight behind her metal rimmed glasses, the countess marched to the big central window and flung it wide open to the spring night. Before she addressed the crowd below, she said to me: “Our fate all depends on your president [Woodrow Wilson] now.” 

Russell interviewed other leading political and cultural figures of the Irish revolutionary movement, including: 

  • Sinn Féin leader Éamon de Valera, describing his “white, ascetic, young–he is thirty-seven–face lined with determination”5;
  • “sharp-mustached, sardonic little”6 Arthur Griffith, the Sinn Féin founder;
  • Maud Gonne McBride, widow of an Irish revolutionary leader, “tall and slim in her deep mourning”7;
  •  “keen, boyish” Michael Collins8, the revolution’s guerrilla warfare strategist; and
  • George William Russell [no relation], “the famous AE, poet, painter and philosopher, the ‘north star of Ireland.’ ”9

Russell witnessed the Dublin arrival of the American Commission on Irish Independence, a non-U.S. government delegation of three prominent Irish Americans sent to the 1919 Paris peace conference to lobby for Ireland. She reported on a failed effort in the international race to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight. 

The three members of the Irish-American delegation, at right, receive an address written in Irish from Cumann na mBan Photo: Irish Life, 16 May 1919. From the National Library of Ireland collection, via Century Ireland.

As in her Markievicz piece, Russell was self-referential in other reporting, in both first and third person, such as her March 1919 interview with de Valera, then hiding from British authorities: “In a small white room where reddish tapestry and draperies concealed closed doors and shaded windows Mr. de Valera was talking to me as a representative of the Chicago Daily News,” she wrote. Later in the same story, Russell described being escorted from the secret meeting location: “In the darkness the correspondent was guided along a narrow garden walled to a waiting car.”10

IN THE SHADOWS

Russell’s reporting was at its best when she mixed with Ireland’s poorest citizens, those in the shadow of the revolution. She lived in the Dublin slums with families crammed into one-room tenements. She applied for hard-to-find jobs with other women, many caring for children and supporting unemployed husbands and brothers. “Their constant toil makes the women of Ireland something less than well-cared for slaves,” Russell wrote.11

Checkpoint in Limerick, April 1919.

She interviewed workers and labor leaders in the short-lived Limerick soviet, at Belfast textile mills, and outside a soon to open Ford-owned tractor plant:  “On the edge of the sidewalks in Cork there is a human curbing of idle men,” she reported. “Just now most of them are sons of farmers or farm hands, for the farmer of the south is turning his acres back to grazing and extra hands are not needed.”12

Most of Russell’s stories were published on inside pages of the Daily News with dispatches of its other foreign correspondents. A few times the paper promoted her by name in secondary headlines, such as “Ruth Russell Describes Barring of Workers from Home Town” (Limerick), and “Ruth Russell Tells Pathetic Story of Why Women Go to England”.13 It is unclear if this was an attempt by the Daily News to market her as a “stunt girl” reporter, or leverage the reputation of her late father, Martin J. Russell, one of Chicago’s pioneering newspaper editors.

In this reading from “Why Women Go to England”, Russell describes looking for work in Dublin with recently unemployed female munitions workers, like those she had labored with two years earlier in a Chicago armament plant.14:

Down a puddly, straw-strewn lane we were blown by the wind to a candy factory. It was next in factory size to the biscuit plant. Dublin considers a 50 to 100 hand plant very large. At this place, it was possible to earn $4.50 a week, but the thumbed sign on the door read: No hands wanted. … Up the narrow wooden treaded stairs we mounted to a big room where girls sitting sideways on a long table nailed yellow wooden candy containers together. Through a crack between the planks of the floor we could see hard red candies swirling below. As the melting sleet was pooling off our hats, the ticking aproned manager came out to sputter: Can’t you read? … That night along Gloucester Street, past the Georgian mansions built before the union of Ireland and England, flat uprising structures from behind whose verdigrised brass trimmed doors came the mummers of many membered tenement families–I walked until I came to a shining brass plated door. “Why don’t you go to England?” was the first question the matron of the working girls home put to me when I told her I could get no work. “All the girls are.”  

Note how this story was published on June 3 but has a May 5 dateline.

IRISH CHILDREN, CHICAGO CONNECTIONS

Russell detailed malnourishment, mental illness, and other social problems in Ireland’s cities and rural western counties. She reported about children, teachers, and schools, likely drawing on her own earlier classroom training. Perhaps 175,000 of 500,000 enrolled children did not attend school; and only 3,820 of 13,538 teachers were efficient because their pay was low, $405 to $1,440 per year, she reported from government data.15

“Dead, mentally dead, teachers are frequent in Ireland,” Russell wrote.

Russell followed Daily News Publisher Victor F. Lawson’s advice about the paper’s correspondents to stay close to the native people. Here is an example from her stay in the Dublin slums16:

Then as a lodger I was given the only chair at the breakfast table. The mother and girl sat at a plank bench and supped their tea from their saucerless cups. As there was no place else to sit, the children took their bread and jam as they perched on the bed, and when they finished, surreptitiously wiped their fingers on the brown-covered hay mattress. Before we were through they had run to the streets to warm their cold legs inside the fender till the floor was tracked with mud from the street, ashes from the grate, and bits of crumbling bread.

Russell named other children in her reporting, detailing their young ages and harsh circumstances:

  • Six-year-old Mary Casey “has some difficulty curling her arm about the papers she carries” as the youngest member of the Dublin Newsgirls’ Club.
  • “Eight-year-old Michael Mallin drags kelp out of a rush basket and packs it down for fertilizer between the brown ridges of the little hand-spaded field in Donegal.”
  • “Nine-year-old Patrick Gallagher may go to the Letterkenny Hiring Fair to sell his baby services to a farmer.”
  • “Ten-year-old Margaret Duncan can be found sitting hunched up on a doorstep in a back street in Belfast.”17 

And like any good reporter, Russell found Chicago connections in Ireland to relay back to her hometown readers: 

  • Fr. J. P. Flannigan at St. Mary’s procathedral in Dublin, who led a committee of Catholic priests trying to quell Irish labor unrest, had studied in Rome with Archbishop George William Mundelein of Chicago.18
  • Progressive social reformer Jane Addams of Chicago helped send rubber boots to war-torn Germany through the Women’s International League.19
  • “Chicago girl” Stella M. Franklin, former secretary-treasurer of the city’s Woman’s Trade Union League, worked to improve housing conditions throughout the British Isles.20
  • Russell’s story on the Irish economy questioned whether England prevented Ireland from developing “all the Chicago side industries that can be established in connection with the cattle trade.” Money was lost shipping the animals across the Irish Sea for slaughter and processing. Russell reported that a London firm “has just issued a prospectus for a plant designed for slaughtering, tanning, chandlery, glue making, and which is intended to transform Drogheda in Ireland into a Chicago.”21 

Some of Russell’s stories published up to two months after their dateline. Her byline from Ireland appeared in American newspapers at least through October 1919, though she returned home in August.22

In 1920, Russell would expand her reporting into magazine articles and her book, What’s the matter with Ireland? She also would take on a new role of publicly speaking out for Irish independence beyond the printed page.

NEXT: Russell’s Irish activism in America.

U.S. press coverage of April 1919 ‘Limerick soviet’

“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.”

Checkpoint in Limerick, April 1919.

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 Pressun-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:

Below, a 7-minute video explaining the origins and more details of the event: