Talking about the time Irish workers shook an empire

A hundred years ago, the Limerick soviet provided a challenge to British occupation, and left playwright Mike Finn wondering how Ireland would have turned out if their ideas held sway through the struggle, writes Marjorie Brennan.

It is almost 100 years to the day since 14,000 workers in Limerick went on strike in protest at the British army imposing martial law in the city following the death of an IRA member in police custody. Known as the Limerick Soviet, after the Russian equivalent, in the space of a fortnight, the workers were printing their own newspaper, controlling food prices and had established their own currency.

Playwright Mike Finn revisits this little-known chapter of Irish history in Bread Not Profits, an ambitious large-scale site-specific production taking place in the former Cleeve’s factory site in Limerick, one of the places where the British required workers to have a permit to gain entry.

“The workers argued correctly that they had the right to go to and from their employment without hindrance by the military, particularly a foreign military,” says Finn.

It’s about ordinary people standing up to an army

He worked on the project while artist-in-residence at the city’s Belltable arts centre. It was a subject that had fascinated the Limerick native for years and as the centenary approached, the time was ripe to delve deeper.

“Limerick people are becoming curious about it. There were quite a few soviets around Ireland from 1919 to the early 1920s [including in Cork and Waterford] but they’ve been written out of history. They say history is written by the winners and after independence we became very conservative, very Catholic, very republican — so the republican narrative was the only one in our history.”

Mike Finn

DIFFERENT PATH

The play also led Finn to reflect on the direction the country would have taken if the workers’ movement had not lost its most prominent and charismatic leader.

“What would have happened if James Connolly hadn’t been executed after the 1916 rising? Something special was lost there because he was an extraordinary man, with extraordinary loyalty from the left. Connolly barely gets mentioned now, even though over a quarter of those who took part in the Easter Rising were in the Citizens’ Army. They had a very different view of what they were fighting for compared to McDonagh and Pearse, who just wanted to get rid of the British.

Connolly and the Citizens Army also wanted social and economic change in the country, they were essentially looking for a workers’ republic

Finn points to the efforts of people like the late Limerick Labour politician Jim Kemmy in keeping the memory of the soviet alive, and also author Liam Cahill, who 30 years ago wrote the book Forgotten Revolution about the Limerick soviet, an updated version of which is being published this year. Finn says the current political turmoil has also led to a renewed interest in such events.

“There’s an interest now in alternative politics — especially since the crash and austerity. People may be looking at capitalism and seeing it’s not such a great idea, or that there may be alternatives worth looking at.

“That’s what the Limerick soviet was all about, workers taking control of something in the face of an entire empire.”

FAMILY MEMORIES

Memories of the soviet were also passed down in Finn’s own family. “My grandmother was part of a protest on the Easter Sunday, when a load of workers walked out of the city, without permits, to a hurling match in Caherdavin. They marched back in, up to the barricades and demanded to be left back in. They weren’t and they marched around in a circle and stayed in friends’ houses in Thomondgate that night. The next morning they got on a train just outside the city and got in that way.”

In Bread Not Profits, Finn blends fiction and reality to portray the larger picture.

“I ventilate some of the big political arguments through small domestic scenes. In one case, the arguments for and against the strike are made by two fictional characters, a baker and his wife. He’s worried about the strike closing his business down but his wife is more enthusiastic and then someone from the strike committee comes in and orders him to open the bakery. This was the second day of the strike, when the strike committee realised it was fine to shut the city down but how did you feed the people? They started to organise food distribution by giving permits to bakers and butchers to open.”

A quirk of fate also meant the soviet became the centre of international media attention. A transatlantic air race that scheduled to leave from Bawnmore in Co Limerick was cancelled and the journalists present instead focused their attention on the story of the soviet. The interesting intersection of socialism and religion could be seen in one media report.

“An American journalist Ruth Russell [Chicago Tribune] gave a very colourful account of workers chatting to her about politics until the Angelus bells rang, and then they excused themselves,” says Finn. “They were probably never going to abandon their Catholicism, but when they set up the soviet they didn’t consult the church, which was unusual. Local clergy were probably put out by that because most things, even in politics, at that time usually got the local bishop on board.”

MODERN RELEVANCE

Finn says the play also has resonances for workers today, in an Ireland where flexible contracts and precarious work conditions have taken hold virtually unopposed.

“What impresses me about the men and women [in the soviet] is their confidence, I find that remarkable. I wish the left and the working class could regain some of that confidence. They might have been struggling but they were heavily unionised and politicised.

“It’s something I addressed in a previous play, Pigtown — the transformation of Limerick in the late 20th century, when we had bacon factories, clothing factories, a lot of manufacturing. There were a lot of ordinary men and women who didn’t have great educations but who were able to make a good living in these factories. That all disappeared, for various reasons, and I wonder about what has replaced it.

“Shiny computer factories and call centres are not for the likes of the people who worked in the bacon factories. Their sons and daughters have been cast adrift to a certain extent, they’re now unemployed or being sucked into gang warfare and drugs, because something their grandparents did, getting up every morning to work hard for a decent wage, that’s been taken away from them and hasn’t been replaced with anything substantial.

“One thing that worries me is the demise of the trade union movement. I would hope that the centenary of the soviet and the play will bring back the idea of the union.”

According to Finn, the soviet’s failure also ultimately contributed to a lack of plurality in Irish politics.

“In his book, Liam Cahill says socialism suffered a defeat as a result and nationalism remained in the ascendancy. We were left with two Civil War parties which are practically indistinguishable from each other. All my life one of them’s been in power and the other’s been in opposition.”

Finn hopes the play, directed by Terry O’Donovan, will lead people to discover more about workers’ rights and the history of protest in Ireland.

“I came across a quote recently that’s been on my mind — historians tell us what happened but artists tell us how it felt. So I guess my job is to tell people how it felt to be around that time. I’d like people to see the play and then want to find out more.”

Bread Not Profits runs Tues-Sat from Apr 16-27, at Cleeve’s factory, Limerick. www.limetreetheatre.ie; 061-953400

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