Bosses and clergy

"I wish to state that neither his Lordship nor the clergy were consulted before the strike was declared, and they were teetotally opposed to its continuance."
- Rev. Fr. W Dwane, Administrator, Saint Michael's Parish, reported in several newspapers.

If the first week of the Limerick Soviet had its moments of drama and comedy, the second week turned into tragedy and, at times, farce. The main players in determining the nature of this Second Act of the Soviet were the Catholic Bishop, Dr Denis Hallinan, the Mayor, Alphonsus O'Mara, the military commander, General Griffin, the leadership of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress, and an assorted cast of strikers, employers and clergy.

The small shopkeepers and small businesses generally had co-operated with the Soviet from the beginning. But the major employers, represented by the Chamber of Commerce, never did more than reluctantly acquiesce in the workers' control of business life. Given the natural antagonism of interests between the two classes this is not surprising. Almost from the start, the major employers were champing at the bit. They met daily, testing ideas, probing weaknesses, drafting formulae to allow the strike to be called off, liaising with the British authorities, and in general, trying to restore what they saw as the natural order of things in Limerick as quickly as possible.

On the first day of the strike, the Chamber of Commerce protested against the proclamation of the city as a military area, particularly the irritating system of permits, and they called for the immediate withdrawal of the restrictions. They sent copies of their resolution to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord French, to General Griffin and to the Acting Prime Minister, Bonar Law. This may have prompted the first concession by General Griffin, which we have already noted, that of allowing the employers to issue their own officially-provided permits.

Only twenty four hours after the strike started, prominent business people were actively discussing the situation and complaining that their interests were seriously affected. They suggested to the authorities that a slight alteration in the mapping of the boundaries would overcome the difficulties that had provoked the strike – clearly underestimating the desire of the Government to punish Limerick and the workers' revulsion at the prospect of having to obtain permits from any authority in order to go to work.

The Coal Merchants' Association publicly lost their patience with the strikers' controls more quickly than the other employers. On the first Wednesday of the strike, the Strike Committee ordered the coal merchants to open their yards. This was complied with, and coal was sold to the citizens for a number of hours. But this type of workers' control was obviously too difficult for some of the coal merchants to swallow. The following day, Thursday, six of the principal merchants refused to open, and the police stood on duty outside their gates.

A deputation from the Strike Committee met the secretary of the Coal Merchants' Association and requested that the yards be re-opened. The merchants refused, saying they had no employees with which to do the necessary work. The deputation then offered to supply the necessary labour, but the secretary repeated that the yards would not be opened. There was little the strikers could do then - if a potentially violent confrontation was to be avoided - except to express considerable indignation at the merchants' attitude and point out that they had done everything possible to facilitate them, since the strike was called. In contrast, the provision merchants generally were reported to have acted in harmony with the Strike Committee and had kept prices normal.

By the end of the first week, some employers were advocating a reopening of business premises on the Tuesday following the Easter weekend. They were prepared to carry on business as best they could, in defiance of the Strike Committee. John Cronin, Chairman of the Strike Committee, warned they would oppose any such reopening, but without abusing the power in their hands. The proposal was discussed at a private meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, but the vast majority of opinion was against such a line of action. The Chamber adjourned its meeting inconclusively.

A number of trade unions paid their members strike pay for the first week, and some employers decided to pay wages as well. T Geary and Sons, the Shannon Confectionery Works, paid their staff full wages and Miss Madge Daly paid her vandrivers. Madge Daly was a member of a prominent Limerick Republican family. Her brother Edward, the only son and the youngest among a family of ten, was one of the Commandants of the Easter Week Rebellion, in 1916, and had been executed by firing squad in the aftermath. Madge Daly and two of her sisters were leaders of Cumann na mBan, the Republican womens' auxiliary group, and later during the Anglo-Irish War, their home was ransacked by the Black and Tans as part of official reprisals for an attack on British forces in Limerick.

Midway through the second week of the strike, the employers were still holding meetings and complaining about the strike's effect on their businesses. They saw themselves as the chief sufferers in a dispute to which they were not parties. They claimed many of their employees were anxious to return to work, but that the sinister spectre of the Soviet stood in the way. Clerks in some offices returned to their desks, but they were immediately picketed. Some of the clerks stayed at work, but others rejoined the strikers.

One prominent employer made his representations directly to Bonar Law at Number Ten, Downing Street and to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord French. He was George Clancy, a wholesale and retail draper. Clancy's suggestion was that the military restrictions be withdrawn or suspended, ostensibly temporarily, but that in reality the agitation that had caused the strike would then fizzle out. His clever argument was that since the citizens had behaved so peaceably during the strike, the authorities could claim they were lifting the restrictions as a reward for good behaviour. Now was the time to solve the problem, while it was easy to do so and no harm had been done. In his letter to Bonar Law he helpfully enclosed a copy of the "Irish Independent" to brief him on events in Limerick.

Clancy said that for many years prior to the strike, Limerick was perhaps "the quietest, most peaceful and most orderly place in the Empire." Describing the rescuers of Robert Byrne as "a party of foolish young fellows", he said the strike had been immediate and "down to the last man. The whole city was shut down. Factories, shops, business places of all kinds, large and small, solicitors' offices, Medical Halls. Everything shut down more rigorously than even on Sunday....Everything is exceptionally quiet, and most orderly so far." But Clancy was worried the strike might lead to something more serious, and extend "over the whole of Ireland, North, South, East and West and it may be to England, Scotland and Wales, and I need not say what the result will be."

Clancy claimed he had made it his business to consult "a great many on both sides" - strike leaders and the heads of major firms like Cleeves. They were all quite unanimous his idea was a splendid one. In his view, the "temporary" lifting of the restrictions would be "a great day's work for the Empire." Clancy then cleverly couched his plea as one of concern for the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, who was in Paris "so terribly busy and his hands so very full finishing up in a highly satisfactory manner the mighty work of the Peace Conference." It would be cruel and inconsiderate on their part, Clancy wrote, to do anything that would cause the Prime Minister annoyance and worry and put more weight on his shoulders. On the contrary, they should try to make things as "Easy and Pleasant" for him. Mr Clancy received no more than a routine acknowledgement of his letter from the Acting Prime Minister at Number Ten.

Other prominent citizens were preoccupied too with the military controls on the city. On the first Saturday night of the strike, Holy Saturday, the Mayor, Alphonsus O'Mara presided at a large meeting of citizens in the City Hall. They passed a resolution protesting against the imposition of the military area system in Limerick. The resolution was proposed by Michael Collivet, the local Sinn Fein MP (or TD as they were called in the separatist Dail Eireann). Father O'Connor, Parish Priest of Saint Mary's, proposed an addendum demanding the instant withdrawal of the military cordon around the city since it prevented the workers from having free access to their work.

John Cronin complained that coal and foodstuffs were being held up, and another resolution was passed calling on people who had foodstuffs to place them at the disposal of the people once they had got full market value for them. Cronin's appeal is a significant measure of the weakness of the strikers' control over fuel and food. The meeting also decided that the various bodies represented should appoint delegates to a committee to help raise funds to alleviate distress. Significantly, even at this relatively early stage, the Chamber of Commerce stood aloof. Mr Goodbody, Vice-President of the Chamber, said he and some other members were present, not to express any views, but to hold a sort of watching brief and report to the Chamber.

The Mayor said that if the Government was capable of governing they should do so without punishing innocent people. If constitutional law existed in the country, the city should not have been proclaimed.

Michael Collivet called for support for the Strike Committee, saying they had arrived at an acute stage of the struggle. Collivet said that if a policeman had been killed or murdered in England under the existing laws a military area such as had been enforced in Limerick could not be maintained. If the people were beaten on that question it would result in police law.

In his speech, John Cronin, announced one of the most crucial developments of the Soviet - the impending arrival in the city of the entire Executive Council of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress. On Monday and Tuesday, Cronin predicted, "the seat of their Labour Parliament would be transferred from Dublin to Limerick." Indicating that he was thinking along the lines of a general, national strike as a result, Cronin said: "In the next day or two all Ireland would be doing what Limerick was doing today." Cronin declared that in calling the strike they had done so with full responsibility, and were prepared to take the consequences.

Tom Johnson, the Congress Treasurer, seemed to promise wider support too when he said that Labour movements all over the world would respond to the call of Limerick. "It was no longer a Limerick fight, but a fight of workers against military domination and Imperialist forces."

On the Saturday morning, the Mayor had presided at a meeting of the City magistrates. Mr R J Daly proposed a resolution and it was seconded by the City Coroner, Mr James F Barry. It appealed in the present grave crisis which had arisen, to all lovers of peace and liberty to do all in their power to alleviate the deplorable conditions now prevailing, and declared that the military authorities would be well advised to extend the military area to such an extent that the citizens would be at liberty to attend their daily avocations without having to produce permits.

There were two dissenting voices - O'Mara himself, and the Resident Magistrate, P J Kelly. (6) The Mayor opposed the resolution on the formal grounds that the magistrates had not been consulted before the city was proclaimed, though probably his real objection was to the idea of extending the military boundaries further. The Resident Magistrate, on the other hand, rejected any implied criticism of the military arrangements.

The diligent Mr Kelly recounted all this in a report to the Under Secretary for Ireland in Dublin Castle. Mr Kelly apparently had the support of two others in opposing criticism of the military permits system. They were satisfied the military authorities had assessed all the facts before deciding on the boundaries of the proclaimed area. According to Kelly's report, "The majority of the Magistrates, with the Mayor, expressed themselves very strongly and pointedly showing that they are not at all in sympathy with the efforts of the authorities in the steps taken to maintain order. Some of them even went so far as to ignore the fact that a serious outrage took place at the Workhouse in the raid that was made and I'm sorry to say some conveyed that they thought it was the police who committed an outrage on that occasion."

We must make some allowance for the fact that Kelly seems to have been particularly energetic in sniffing out sedition and promptly reporting it to senior officials in the Castle. Nevertheless, his comments give an illuminating insight into how far the attitudes of respectable and loyal citizens went in supporting the grievances that caused the strike.

By the time the Limerick Grand Jury convened for the Summer Assizes, in July, opinion of the RIC among the city's loyal and propertied classes had returned to more conventional lines. Sir Charles Barrington Bart., proposed a resolution expressing most emphatically their admiration and high appreciation of the manner in which the members of the RIC had discharged their duty during the trying times through which they were now passing. The Grand Jury tendered their warm sympathy with the relatives of those who had lost their lives, and they had much pleasure in sending a donation to the Central Benevolent Fund, RIC. The resolution was seconded by the Grand Jury Foreman, Mr J O'G Delmege. The Presiding Judge, Mr J Samuels, directed that it be forwarded to the Chief Secretary for Ireland. On July 17, he replied fully endorsing the tribute paid by the Grand Jury to the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and sharing their expression of sympathy with the relatives of those who had lost their lives.

But in any part of Nationalist Ireland of the time the attitude of the Catholic Bishop and clergy was crucial. Initially, the Bishop, Dr Hallinan and the senior clergy came out strongly against the military proclamation and part of their statement was considered so strong in tone by the authorities that it was deleted by the Censor.

The Bishop met with clergy from the city parishes and the religious orders at Saint Munchin's College on the third day of the strike. Afterwards, the newspapers published this statement:
"[1] That we consider the proclaiming of the city of Limerick under existing circumstances as quite unwarrantable. Without explanation of any kind, the citizens of Limerick are being penalised for the lamentable events at the Limerick Workhouse.
[3] That in fixing the boundaries of the military area, the responsible authorities have shown a lamentable want of consideration for the citizens at large, and especially of the working classes."

The censored portion included this strong criticism of the military surveillance of Robert Byrne's funeral:
"[2] That the military arrangements of the funeral of the late Mr Robert Byrne were unnecessarily aggressive and provocative. The presence of armoured cars on the route and the hovering of aeroplanes over the city during the funeral procession were quite an uncalled for display, in the circumstances, of military power, and calculated to fill every right-minded person with feelings of disgust and abhorrence."

This statement was signed by Denis Hallinan, Bishop of Limerick, Canon David O' Driscoll, Vicar General and Parish Priest of Saint Munchin's, Canon David Keane, President Saint Munchin's College, Father Michael Murphy, Parish Priest of Saint Patrick's, Father O'Connor, Parish Priest of Saint Mary's, Father Connolly, Administrator of Saint John's Cathedral, Father Bonaventure, Guardian of the Franciscans, Father Hennessy, Prior of the Augustinians, Father Fahy, Prior of the Dominicans, the Jesuit Rector, Father Potter, Father Dwane, Administrator of Saint Michael's and the Redemptorist Father Kelly, Director of the city's powerful Mens' ArchConfraternity.

Not unexpectedly, there was no explicit approval for the strike, but the statement still indicated a degree of very significant and influential clerical support for a redressing of the grievances that had provoked the workers' action. With the Bishop and the Catholic clergy apparently so firmly on their side, many strikers believed their success was assured. The "Irish Times" reported that the statement was generally regarded as a justification for the strike, and it had "infused fresh vigour into the members of the local 'Soviet'."

The apparent clerical approval continued during the Masses of the following Sunday, Easter Day. In some Catholic churches, the priests congratulated the people on their good conduct, but appealed to juveniles not to congregate at street corners or jeer at the military sentries. This, apparently, was a practice that was increasingly irritating young soldiers. On Holy Saturday night, a sentry had fired a warning shot at some youths.

In the neighbouring County Clare Diocese of Killaloe, we have already seen that Bishop Fogarty was an enthusiastic advocate of food supplies for Limerick. The efforts in this direction of Father Kennedy of Ennis earned him the title of "A Fighting Soggarth" in one edition of the "Workers' Bulletin".

The attitude of the Limerick and Clare clergy may be contrasted with the remarks of the Catholic Bishop of Ross, Doctor Kelly, preaching in the pro-Cathedral at Skibberreen, County Cork, a week after the Workhouse shooting. Doctor Kelly said they knew there were deeds done in Ireland at present that were greatly against the doctrine of the Lord. They affected everyone, and were a blot on their country. He knew they were shocked at them, and he wanted them to do penance for them during Holy Week.

But the Bishop was particularly concerned about expressions of approval for the Soviet-led governments in Russia and Hungary that had been made that week during the sessions of Dáil Éireann. It was his duty as Bishop to ask his flock to protest at those remarks, since the Russian and Austro-Hungarian revolutions were striking at the foundations of religion. The Bishop said he had not been too concerned when Madame Markievicz - one of the Citizen Army leaders in the 1916 Rebellion - had proclaimed support for the Russian Revolution, because he thought she stood alone. But now he was worried to read in his newspaper that these views were held by responsible members of Parliament and some officials of the new "Government". As their Bishop, he warned his congregation that if these ideas were spread among them, if they were picked up, "the faith of Saint Patrick would not stand."

In its first edition of May, looking back at Limerick, the "Irish Catholic" carried an even more forthright condemnation under the heading "Irish Bolshevism". The "Irish Catholic" first rejected the "crazy theories" that had "brought Russia to the verge of abyss." Then it turned to Limerick: "There is only one element of danger in the situation. That is the peril that arises from the possibility of the workers allowing themselves to be unconsciously misled. What has occurred in the city of Limerick is fresh in the public memory. As the result of certain manoeuvres, the import and true significance of which were certainly not manifest to the workmen when they struck, a crisis fraught with potentialities of grave trouble, not merely on a local, but on a national scale, was suddenly precipitated."

The "Catholic" continued: "The British sympathisers with Sovietism were naturally delighted at this development, but it is in accordance with the traditional tactics of these agitators that their social and industrial experiments should first be tried on the Irish dog. However, regarding the Limerick episode, it is one of those developments regarding which it can be said that all is well that ends well."

The editorial writer then trained his sights on Irish "agitators" who did not hesitate to invoke the example of Russian anarchism in furtherance of their political as well as their industrial propaganda. One of them had recently said Ireland had two chances: the first was President Wilson, the other was the Bolshevik rising in Russia. Rejecting what it called the "abominable evangel of Bolshevism", the newspaper said Lenin and his associates stood for relentless class warfare - the negation of democracy. Between those principles, and the principles of the faithful Catholic people of Ireland there could be no compromise.

With attitudes like these so prevalent among influential Catholic leaders of the time, it was inevitable that the uneasy coalition of interests opposing the military proclamation would come under strain, and then crumble. The catalyst for this development was the arrival in Limerick, in the second week of the Soviet, of the Executive of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress.