The Limerick Soviet of 1919

Limerick Trades Council

Photo: Limerick Trades Council in 1919.

The Spirit of Mother Jones Festival will show the documentary, The Limerick Soviet, which has been produced by Frameworks Films, the Cork based film production company, in collaboration with the Limerick Council of Trade Unions, at the Maldron Hotel on Thursday evening 1st August 2019 at 5.00pm.

The documentary will be introduced by Liam Cahill, author of Forgotten Revolution, the Limerick Soviet 1919 (The Centenary Edition).

This documentary tells the thrilling story of a workers rising in Limerick in April 1919 when a general strike was called by the Limerick United Trades and Labour Council.

It followed the deaths on the 6th April of Robert Byrne, a local trade union activist and IRA member, as well as a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, during an audacious escape attempt from custody by Byrne. As a result the British Authorities declared Limerick City a Special Military Area (SMA) whereby military restrictions would apply and permits were required to enter and leave.

The Limerick United Trades and Labour Council refused to accept that the workers of Limerick required permits to come and go to work and declared a general strike. Some 14,000 workers answered the strike call on Monday 14th April 1919. The Strike committee took control of the city and as a self- governing committee declared itself a Soviet. It was a highly effective, disciplined and a well organised operation under the leadership of John Cronin, a carpenter and Chairperson of the Trades Council.

John Dowling in 1919

John Dowling in 1919

Jack Dowling from Cobh, a former fitter in the naval dockyard in Haulbowline and friend of James Connolly, now an ITGWU organiser became “a pivotal figure” in the Limerick Soviet and in subsequent events.

John Cronin and his committee organised and supervised the distribution of food, transport, communications and movement in the City and even printed its own currency during the period. The strike received unprecedented international media coverage owing to the presence of journalists covering an international air race.

Eventually following negotiations and due to Church pressure and the lack of wider national union support, the Soviet decided on a full return to work by the 25th April and the SMA was abolished a few days later.

Limerick Soviet film by Frameworks Films

The Soviet was remarkable in its organisation, in its general unity of workers and in the courage and solidarity of the workers and trade unions. The words of Mother Jones on her death bed could be applied to this Limerick Soviet in that the workers of Limerick “showed the world what the workers can do”.

The Trades Council affirmed the right of workers to come and go from their employment without hindrance by the national authorities. It also displayed to the British Authorities and the Republican movement the potential power of organised labour and its potent force for action when provoked.

This compelling documentary was produced with the support of the Sound and Vision Scheme, an initiative of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland

Mr Mike McNamara President of the Limerick Council of Trade Unions along with the film makers Emma Bowell and Eddie Noonan of Frameworks Films will also attend. 

Forgotten Revolution – Liam Cahill’s comprehensive history of the Limerick Soviet, completely rewritten and extended.

Liam Cahill is a historian and writer, he has researched the history of the Limerick Soviet for many years, and originally wrote the Forgotten Revolution in 1990 (published by O’Brien Press Ltd). Liam has had a long history of active involvement in the Irish Trade Union movement and has written and lectured extensively on Irish Labour history in the period 1916 – 1923.

Liam will introduce and discuss the Limerick Soviet at the Maldron Hotel in Shandon on Thursday evening 1st August 2019 at 5.00 pm.  Copies of his recent publication* will be available to purchase.

 

A special Limerick Soviet Exhibition will be on display courtesy of Cork City Library. The exhibition will continue to be displayed at Knocknaheeny Library during the month of August.

 

* Forgotten Revolution ….The Limerick Soviet 1919 …..A Threat To British Power In Ireland (The Centenary Edition) by Liam Cahill. Published by Orla Kelly Publishing.

 

John Dowling – Cobh’s forgotten revolutionary

 

John Dowling in 1919

John Dowling in 1919

John (Jack) Dowling was a significant trade union and socialist activist in Ireland in the early 20th century who deserves to be better known.   Born in Cobh (then called Queenstown) in the mid 1880s, Dowling, a fitter at Haulbowline naval dockyard,  became an active trade unionist and got involved in socialist politics at an early age.

He was already in contact with James Connolly before 1910 and was one of those who welcomed Connolly home from the United States, introducing him to a huge crowd at Daunt’s Square, Cork in July of that year.  He toured with Connolly and helped promote the new Socialist Party of Ireland and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.

It was in an effort to establish a branch of the former that Connolly visited Cobh in March 1911. On that occasion Connolly was attacked by a mob of conservative nationalists and despite the best efforts of Dowling and a number of others to defend him, Connolly had to beat a hasty retreat from the town under a hail of bricks, bottles and stones.   The group returned on a later occasion and successfully established an ITGWU branch in the town but the Socialist Party of Ireland continued to struggle.

In 1915 Dowling was forced to leave his native Cobh as a result of a police exclusion order under the Defence of the Realm Act.   He moved to Limerick where he later became a fulltime organiser with the ITGWU in 1918.   A year later Dowling, better known by his Irish name Seán in Limerick,  played an important role in the organisation of what was to become known as the Limerick Soviet. He was in the leadership of the “soviet” movement which saw the direct takeover of numerous industries by the workers in response to wage cuts or employer intransigence.

Bruree Workers Soviet mills

Bruree Workers Soviet mills with its slogan “we make bread, not profits”

In particular Dowling played a key role in the worker takeover of Knocklong creamery and Bruree flour mills in County Limerick, in addition to numerous other businesses, mostly in Munster and South Leinster where employers had cut workers’ pay.  The soviet movement even extended to Dowling’s native Cobh where there was a short-lived “railway soviet” in 1921.

Dowling clashed with large farmers who refused to supply milk to worker-run creameries. He also came into conflict with the IRA (both pro and anti-treaty) which in many cases sided with the employers and physically removed the worker-installed management from soviet run factories.

Dowling and his two militant colleagues Sean McGrath and Jack Hedley were subsequently sacked as union organisers by the more conservative ITGWU leadership of William O’Brien who had succeeded Connolly after the 1916 Rising.  Dowling and his comrades were seen as too hard-line and political as Ireland returned to conservatism in the wake of the Civil War.

In 1924 John Dowling returned to Cobh and would have been unhappy with the conservative turn the country took.  He retained his left-wing outlook and had several clashes with the Blueshirts in the early to mid 1930s.  He died in November 1948 and is buried in his native Cobh.

 

John Jefferies will speak about the activism of John Dowling at the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival at the Maldron Hotel on Friday, 31st July at 12 Noon.