The People’s Republic of Ireland? (Left wing politics in Ireland in the Irish War of Independence)


Welcome to the Irish Revolution! I suppose it is very important to point out
the association with the word Soviet would have been more with the concept of a worker’s
council or strike that took responsibility for some civil administration, not necessarily
the radical communism of the nascent Soviet Union, although there were a few Bolsheviks
in Ireland at the time and I’ll speak about them later. But all the same, it is a curious and often
over-looked part of the Irish Revolutionary period which I’m going to explore at length
today. The War of Independence – a social revolution? In many ways the revolutionary generation
were remarkable for their inherent conservatism. Eamon de Valera, President of the revolutionary
Republic, or the Dáil, the revolutionary parliament at least, was once asked what he
would have been had he not been a revolutionary and he answered that he would have been a
bishop. The Irish Free State, born amidst fratricidal
violence, would be the very epitome of a counter revolution, representing foremost the interests
of the professional classes and Irish business. Ernest Blythe famously cut the old age pension
in 1924 from 10 shillings to 9. That is not to say that there were not socialists
and revolutionaries involved, but they were very much on the margins of the political
and military elite of the Sinn Féin party and the IRA And, just to make it absolutely clear, there had been revolutions all across Europe left wing revolutions, so there was something in the air at this time At the ground level in the west of Ireland
there was a brewing social movement amongst poor farmers and labourers. Britain had introduced a number of land reforms
in the late 19th and early 20th century that saw much of the agricultural land in Ireland
get transferred to small and medium farmers and away from the large holdings of the old
landlord class. All the same and particularly in the poor
western province of Connaght there was still a great deal of ‘land hunger’ and the breakdown
of law and order in the war of independence led to a huge increase of rural ‘incidents’
or as they were called at the time, ‘outrages’. In fact, you’d need to go as far back as 1882,
during the so called Land War, to find a year with more outrages as officially described. These outrages would have included Cattle
drives (stealing other farmer’s cows) which attracted crowds of hundreds, threatening
letters were sent, gates removed, walls and fences destroyed, fields vandalised, actual
assualt and a lot of boycotting.1 It’s important to note that for many middling
and prosperous farmers, the first world war was a godsend. They had a ready market in Britain for their
product at generous prices. This would have been resented by poorer farmers
or landless labourers, who as ever were struggling. There was also a wet spring in 1920 which
served to make things even worse. Again, the breakdown of normal law and order
made this agitation possible, as did the widely held belief in the west that the Sinn Féin
party were in favour of rural agitation of this kind (they were not, save a few outliers
of course) The historian Tony Varley2 suggests that the disruption of emigration during the
first world war also contributed to the troubles in the countryside, indeed emigration was
so often a type of safety valve for British rule in Ireland as wealthier farmers consolidated
their lands and the more ‘troublesome’ element left the country. Sinn Féin ultimately put down the agitation,
seeing the challenge to public order represented by the widespread rural agitation as a kind
of threat to their own legitmacy. Of course, one could argue that the social
composition of Sinn Féin more closely mirrored the quietly prosperous farmer who benefitted
from the land reform legislation of recent decades than the poor landless western labourer. In putting down the unrest Sinn Féin benefitted
from the support of the Catholic church, which was adamantly opposed to the unrest. Now, moving on to the Labour party briefly. The Labour party abstained from the 1918 election,
preferring to give the electorate a clean choice on the national question, making the
1918 election effectively a referendum on whether the people wanted to continue with
the constitutional nationalism of the Irish Parliamentary Party or to go in a different
direction with the more militant Sinn Féin party. The historian Donal Ó Drisceoil put it well
when he wrote That said… The Democratic Programme The Labour Party did not of course contest
the 1918 election as I just said, but they still played a part in the first Dáil and
the clearest manifestation of this was the democratic programme, which was a document
outlining a manifesto for social policy in an independent Ireland. It probably best epitomises the alliance of
organised labour and the Republican movement at this time. It was read out during the first Dáil of
January 21st 1919. I did an episode that covers this, which I’ll
link to now. The programme had been drawn up by Sean T
O’Kelly of Sinn Féin from a draft by Labour party leader Tom Johnson. Among other things the document called for
the subordination of property rights in the interests of the public good and every citizen
had a right to an ‘adequate share of the produce of the nation’s labour’. It called for an industrial policy, an expansion
of public services, among other lefty things. However, it is instructive to look at the
original draft, which was much more left wing. Johnson’s draft originally called for This was, as the marxist historian Desmond
Greaves points out, a loose paraphrasing of the communist manifesto. Of course it was too radical for the middle
class Sinn Féin party and was promptly deleted. Another section arguing for syndicalist IE
trade union worker’s power was also deleted. Apparantly at the demand of Michael Collins
and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) who threatened to remove the programme from
the Dáil meeting altogether unless they did so. Píaris Beaslai, looking back in 1926 regarded
it as a communistic document. Beaslai had been responsible for much of the
pageantry of the first Dáil which of course included the democratic programme. Beaslai, who like much of the revolutionary
generation turned out to be extremely conservative, clearly intended that as an insult.4 Left wing politics in Ireland There were two major left wing/socialist forces
in Ireland during the War of Independence. The Labour Party, founded in 1912 by James
Connolly and a few others, and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU for short)
founded by James Larkin in 1909. Much of the passion and energy of left wing
politics had been focused on the psychodrama that was the Dublin Lockout of 1913, a huge
industrial dispute between 20,000 workers and 300 employers, much of which could be
attributed to William Martin Murphy, then the boss of the Irish Independent Newspaper
among many other enterprises, refusing to recognise or deal with the ITGWU or James
Larkin, who he saw as a dangerous socialist radical. It was a defeat in the end for the ITGWU since
most workers returned to the workplace and signed pledges not to join the union. But by 1919 the union had revived and had
more members than it had in 1913. It had around 100,000 members in 1919 – this
up from only 5,000 in 1916 – and 120,000 by 1920. The Irish Trades Union Congress had around
a quarter million members. More than just the numbers, trade unionism
had spread across the country whereas before it was mostly in large urban areas. What’s more the unions were distinctly more
national focused – whereas before many people belonged to British based unions now they
tended to belong to Irish unions, which of course were allied to the Republican movement
on the island. Limerick was not the only place to have a
soviet, just the most famous. These worker’s councils spread across the
country, there were hundreds of strikes and workplace occupations in Ireland at this time
albeit the vast majority were quite temporary. Labours alliance with Sinn Féin and the Republican
movement – and I refer by the way to organised labour here, not necessarily the Labour party
– originated of course with James Connolly and the 1916 Rising, though its roots go back
further. By the way, my second ever episode was about
Padraig Pearse & James Connolly so please check that out. Some left wing historians have tended to criticise
the caution of the Labour movement, Ó Drisceoil again having written The Labour movement was dominated by two moderate
figures, Tom Johnson and William O’Brien. There were more radical trade unionists, such
as Peader O’Donnell, who was probably the closest Ireland had to a true Bolshevik radical
at this time. Labour famously abstained from the 1918 election,
preferring the Irish electorate to have a clean choice. Many socialists at the time considered this
to be a grave mistake. On the face of it the relationship between
the left and the Sinn Féin party was a little tetchy. Arthur Griffith, the leader of the pre 1916
Sinn Féin party was opposed to the workers in the 1913 lockout and was widely loathed
in left wing circles, seen as a capitalist stooge by some. But in the post 1916 Sinn Féin party, which
was to be fair a radically different party, there were many who were sympathetic to the
Labour movement. But the nationalist consensus at the time
was essentially anti-socialist. The evidence for this was clear – in 1920
the Sinn Féin party, along with the IRA, stifled the land agitation in the poor west
of Ireland by landless labourers, which had threatened to up-end the economic status quo
there, as we talked about at the beginning of the episode. Peader O’Donnell spent much of 1918 and 1919
wandering around Ulster, attempting to organise workers in spite of the huge sectarian problems
there (check out my episode on Ulster in the Irish Revolution). Unionists there – by which I mean those
who supported the political union with Britain, not labour activists – were equally terrified
of communism as they were by Irish Republicanism. The Belfast general strike of January 1919
had terrified the political establishment – Lord French, the most senior British official
in Ireland, regarded radical Labour which united protestant and catholic alike as a
greater threat than Sinn Féin. In late January/early February 1919, Peader
O’Donnell led the workers of Monaghan asylum in a strike and they formed the first ‘Soviet’
of the period. Under siege by the police, the workers raised
the red flag, the workers won. From February to April O’Donnell led another
strike among mill-workers in the Protestant town of Caledon, County Tyrone. Every night there was a red flag procession
– one side had written the loyalist slogan ‘No Surrender’ and the other side ‘Up the
Irish Transport’. Less fortunate for O’Donnell this strike was
not as successful. But just as an aside, I wish there had been
more attempts like this to unite working people of both religions, and in this ultimately
doomed struggle we can at least take heart that for a brief time in 1919, in a divided
town in Co. Tyrone, a noble attempt was made. There was a huge and successful general strike
in 1920, and the ITGWU organised rail workers to prevent them carrying British troops or
personnel on trains, and this did help make British administration in Ireland even more
difficult. But that is not the focus of todays video. That’ll be the focus of another video, in
the future. The People’s Republic of Ireland? Perhaps the most famous of the so-called Soviets
was the Limerick Soviet, which lasted for ten days in April 1919. Just to remind you, a soviet was a workers
council that took control of local administration and would not have had the same connotation
as perhaps it would have a few years later. The Limerick Trades Council effectively took
control of the city after a local trade unionist and IRA man was killed during a rescue attempt. The subsequent military reaction to this and
the restrictions on movement were widely resented, which led to the strike. The Soviet issued its own currency and organised
supplies for the city. 14,000 workers downed tools. Interestingly, the price of a pint of milk
dropped from 7 pence to 3 pence, perhaps an indication of the power of the middleman,
or gombeen, in the Irish economy. 6 There happened to be a large number of international
journalists in Limerick at the time, there to cover a mooted transatlantic flight, and
as a result the Soviet got a huge amount of international coverage. But could it be considered a socialist revolt? Not according to the historian Liam Cahill
who wrote Here are some of the other strikes and soviets: -In October 1919 workers took control of Monghan
Town for five days, and won themselves a pay increase. Peader O’Donnell, closely involved in Monaghan
based agitation wrote -In July 1919 150 farm labourers in Churchtown
and Buttevant, County Cork, stuck for a wage increase and were joined in a sympathy strike
by local creamery workers. Workers marched under a red banner which declared
‘workers of the world unite. The unorganised worker is the slave of the
employer.’ After two weeks the workers were victorious. -This led to a pattern of creameries being
occupied in dairy rich Munster, the most famous of which was the occupation at Knocklong,
County Limerick in May 1920. The red flag flew alongside the Republican
tricolour and the famous slogan ‘we make butter, not profits’ was draped in front of the building. Some of the leaders of the Knocklong Soviet
were in fact self described communists, but this was far from the norm in the country. -In April 1920 there was a 24 hour general
strike, during which many towns across Ireland were briefly occupied by trades councils,
which led to the release of Republican hunger strikers in Mountjoy jail in Dublin. -In 1920 railway workers in the National Union
of Railwaymen boycotted the British military, which led to the closure of many rail lines
and seriously hampered British administration. -In late 1920 the ITGWU supported the Sinn
Féin led Belfast boycott in retaliation against sectarian attacks against Catholic workers
in Belfast and other northern towns. -Between May and June 1921 the Arigna Soviet
took control of the coal mines on the Leitrim-Roscommon border, and succesfully ran the mine for two
months. It would be remiss of me not to mention, as
the Marxist historian Conor Kostick did in a recent article, that there were no women
involved in the Limerick Soviet for example and that all of the soviets tended to be all-male
affairs. That said, the Irish Revolution was remarkable
for the participation of women at the time in Cumann na mBan for example, a sort of auxiliary organisation of the IRA and just remember, at this time women still did not have the vote in many countries. There was even a government minister, the secretary
for Labour, Constance Markievicz – who was of course a woman. It’s a fair critique but the lack of participation
of women in the labour movement was merely a reflection of the times.9 I’ll not get into what happened during the
Truce and post-treaty period as that would overly complicate today’s episode. But do not let it be said that the War of
Independence was fought only by the IRA and the Sinn Féin party. The Irish labour movement deserves its due

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