"The whole scene made a remarkable picture. The crowds on the bridge, the military fully accoutred, and the cordons of police furnished a centre-piece to a setting as peaceful as any artist could conceive. The brackish waters of the Shannon, sparkling in the evening sunlight, moved lazily by as if nothing was happening, and the church bells intensified the calmness of the scene."
- The "Irish Times", 22nd April 1919.
The success and strength of the Soviet may be gauged from the fact that only four days after it began the authorities offered a tempting compromise.
On the first Thursday of the strike, Brigadier-General Griffin attended a special meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, accompanied by his secretary, Captain Wallace, County Inspector Crane from the RIC and District Inspector Craig. The proceedings were private, but a formal report was given to the press. In order to facilitate the business of the city, General Griffin said, the authorities had decided to allow
the employers to issue permits to their employees. The military would give the employers duplicate blocks of permits for this purpose. Furthermore, at the request of the Chairman and other members of the Chamber, he would put before Headquarters the idea of granting a further concession so that traders would be empowered to issue permits to their rural customers to come in to shop in the city.
The General's meeting with the Chamber may have been preceded by behind the scenes contacts with major business people who were concerned about the losses they would sustain in a continued strike.
General Griffin's concession represented a considerable climbdown on his part. At the start of the strike, Cleeves's had asked for a permit to cover all six hundred of their workers, but this was refused because the military had insisted on individual applications.
The General's offer was an ingenious device, firstly to divide what had hitherto been a united community on the issue of permits, and secondly, to turn the employers - who had at least acquiesced in the Soviet's controls up to then - into a pressure point on the workers to settle. It appears also that the General was to some extent trying to use the employers as intermediaries to effect an overall solution to the problem. According to the "Workers' Bulletin", General Griffin said that if the Chamber saw fit they might consider conveying his decision to the Strike Committee.
After General Griffin had left the Chamber a strikers' delegation, led by John Cronin, was invited in and told of the offer. The employers made it clear they hoped the offer would be accepted, emphasising too that they viewed it as a substantial concession. Cronin and his colleagues said they would report the matter to the full strike committee, but nothing further was heard on the matter, and it was, in practice, rejected out of hand.
In any event, the General's offer was unacceptable. Rank and file strikers interpreted the military compromise as giving the employers the right to decide who was fit to enter the city and who was not, something they could no more countenance than military checking. The danger was that some employers might abuse the power to discriminate against certain workers. Disappointed perhaps with this outcome, the Chamber vented their irritation on the Government and sent a resolution to Andrew Bonar Law, he Acting Prime Minister, demanding that martial law be ended.
Easter Sunday April 20, 1919 a week exactly after the strike began was, in some ways, a high point and a watershed of the Limerick Soviet. Apart from its celebratory connotations in the Christian world, Easter in Nationalist Ireland has an added significance. It is the time people commemorate the Rising and executions of Easter 1916, seen as the modern spring from which the stream of freedom ran. Easter Sunday in Limerick became the occasion of a mass confrontation with the troops and police, that had many humorous aspects but was also a serious test by both sides of their will-power and resolution. One newspaper described the confrontation as "a situation of considerable menace" and another as "an ominous development".
That Sunday evening, a crowd of about a thousand people, mostly young men and women, moved out of the City to the nearby Caherdavin Heights under the guise of attending a hurling or gaelic football match. By this time, military permits were not needed to leave the city though they had been at the beginning of the strike. In any event, the military checkpoints were only on the main thoroughfares and it was always possible to leave the city along the railway bridges and embankments and by crossing the Shannon in a boat. Among the crowd were many of the strike leaders, including Tom Johnson, Treasurer of the Trade Union Congress.
The Caherdavin episode is still shrouded in some mystery. Some survivors have asserted that no match was, in fact, planned and that in reality, the exodus was nothing more than a ruse. The real aim, apparently, was to test the military's resolve.
After several hours, the large crowd moved back from the Northern, County Clare side of the Shannon, towards the sentries on Sarsfield Bridge. A soldier fired a blank shot and immediately, military reinforcements rushed out of the Shannon Rowing Club and a dozen troops with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets went to strengthen the sentries facing the crowd. In the upper windows of the clubhouse, troops placed guns in position. Officers rushed to and fro with their hands ominously on their revolvers and a nearby whippet tank on standby got up steam, tested its machine guns and moved into position.
For a time, it looked as if a serious crisis had been reached. The leaders of the crowd demanded entry to the city, without permits. This was refused. In an impressive display of passive resistance, the crowd then formed itself into a giant circle and, one by one, approached the sentries and demanded entry into Limerick, all the time just brushing off the bayonets. As each person was refused entry, they wheeled away and their place was taken by another.
Fifty policemen were marched down Sarsfield Street, from William Street Station, to reinforce the men on the bridge, but they carried only side arms and batons. A staff officer from military headquarters arrived on a motor-cycle, and a few minutes later, an armoured car - with machine guns ready for action - drove at a furious pace to the scene. News of the incident spread like wildfire through the city and thousands of people lined the city side of the river to watch the confrontation. A large number of journalists, including some American reporters, surveyed the scene.
Again and again, continuing until nightfall, the demonstrators marched in a circle right up to the military and police lines. The soldiers surveyed the parade in silence, but stood ready all the while with rifle and bayonet ready. Shortly after nine o'clock, the spectators scattered in panic as a rumour swept the crowd that the military were about to open fire. At one stage, a Franciscan priest crossed the bridge and appealed to the demonstrators, over the heads of the cordon, to disperse. General Griffin himself arrived to survey the problem at first hand.
The Mayor, Alphonsus O'Mara, and a number of prominent citizens demanded that Griffin allow the demonstrators return to their homes. He offered to send an officer to give them permits, but this was refused and the Mayor repeated his demand for unhindered passage, but without success.
The "Irish Times", no friend of the strikers, carried this lyrical description of the demonstration: "The whole scene made a remarkable picture. The crowds on the bridge, the military fully accoutred, and the cordons of police furnished a centre-piece to a setting as peaceful as any artist could conceive. The brackish waters of the Shannon, sparkling in the evening sunlight, flowed lazily by as if nothing was happening, and the church bells intensified the calmness of the scene."
From the city side of the river, there were shouts of encouragement and the demonstrators sang Irish songs to keep their spirits up. Shortly after Midnight, a number of demonstrators managed to cross the river in boats. Despite the cold, others, including a large number of determined young women, maintained their vigil on the bridge. In the morning, some of the women passed unhindered through the military pickets. According to a local newspaper, the sentry's heart was softened by "their charming looks and the magic of their brogue". Most of the demonstrators, however, spent the night in some comfort on the Clare side of the river. The women were accommodated in people's homes in the working-class Thomondgate district, famed in a local poem for "its social joys and the birthplace of the devil's boys." The young men held an all-night concert and dance in Saint Munchin's Temperance Hall.
Next morning, the Clare farmers brought hundreds of boxes of eggs, butter, gallons of new milk and loaves of home-made bread into Thomondgate. The residents cooked the food and the demonstrators all ate a hearty breakfast.
Fortified by their meal, after midday, about two hundred men and women lined up outside the Temperance Hall and marched about a mile to the Long Pavement railway station. They were cheered by crowds along the route. When they got to the station, they boarded a passenger train from Ennis, bound for Limerick. The station master and his staff were so astounded at this influx of passengers at a remote wayside station that they overlooked to ask for tickets.
At the check platform outside the Limerick terminus, checkers got on board and were amazed to find so many passengers without tickets. All of them paid their fare, however, without demurring. A number of military officers then arrived and demanded permits. When these were not forthcoming, they ordered the carriage doors to be locked and sentries placed outside. An attempt to segregate passengers who had permits, from the others, was abandoned as too laborious and time- consuming.
After a delay of half an hour, the train pulled in to the left hand platform where double lines of sentries barred the way to the exits. A number of priests and nuns, who had permits, appealed in vain to be released from the carriages. All the while, the young passengers sang rebel songs.
Suddenly, all the carriage doors on the offside of the train from the military were opened, some of the young men having got keys, possibly from a friendly railway official. Between two and three hundred men and women rushed out on to the centre platform and towards the main gate. Here armed sentries blocked the exit, but without pausing, the crowd rushed towards a side platform where only a solitary military policeman stood on guard. In vain, he held out his arms to block the rush. He was quickly brushed aside, and to the cheers of hundreds of onlookers gathered outside the station, the Caherdavin demonstrators broke the military blockade and were free.
The "Workers' Bulletin" revelled in the success of the demonstration. They described it as a highly successful entertainment put on by the Soviet's "Amusement Committee" and watched by one of the largest audiences ever seen in Limerick. "The helmets shone, the rifles pealed, the police force performed acrobatic feats, the armoured cars ran wild, and even the auld tank - which apparently got more Scotch than soda - struck up 'Rule Britannia' and sprawled out to greet the citizens of Limerick, and it was so delighted to meet them that it couldn't leave the way clear for them to get home."
The British officers who boarded the train to check for permits were in remarkably good spirits and exchanged banter with the strikers. In general, there seems to have been a major difference in the strikers' attitude towards the military, compared with the Royal Irish Constabulary.
In the Easter Monday issue of the "Workers' Bulletin", a writer expressed "the greatest feelings of joy that our fellow Trade Unionists in khaki are refusing to do the dirty work, which is only fit for such invertebrates as the RIC." Occasionally, the "Bulletin" referred to the RIC as "swine", sometimes as the "Royal Irish Swine" or "Royal Irish Cowards". On the other hand, the British soldiers were referred to as "Tommy", who was not the real enemy, merely "a tool of his Imperialistic, Capitalistic Government".
There were few unpleasant incidents between the military and the civilian population. In some instances, the strike leaders with their distinctive badges were even saluted by the military. In general, the soldiers were considered to be carrying out their duties with tact and without unnecessarily interfering with people. Some of them became quite at home on the banks of the Shannon and "when freed from duty spend their time luring rebellious fish from its russet waters."
As the strike continued, the soldiers began to tire of doing police work, and a major was court-martialled for refusing to do duties he considered proper to the constabulary. The "Workers' Bulletin" claimed an entire Scottish regiment was sent home for allowing people to go back and forth without passes. Obviously, so soon after the end of the Great War, the British Army still contained many conscripts who held strong trade union or socialist views. As the "Bulletin" observed: "Men like to fight men on equal terms, but when it comes to dragooning one's own class, especially women and tender babes, in the interests of autocracy, it may become a different story."
The attitude to the RIC was quite different. They were particularly resented as being "the eyes and ears" of British administration in Ireland. The RIC were a military force, armed with carbines and revolvers, and maintained at a strength of nearly eleven thousand - well above the establishment of a normal police force. The force had a peculiar legal status. It was not governed by the Army Act, but was an armed force governed by its own regulations. In this sense, it was unique in the British Empire.
After the 1916 Rising, the Commander in Chief in Ireland, General Maxwell, had argued that the crisis had shown that he should have power to bring the Constabulary under his direct orders in the event of another rebellion or an invasion and that, when so employed, they should be subject to military law. The RIC were native Irish men, but in order to minimise intimidation of their relatives they were not stationed in their home counties. There was hardly a village without an RIC barracks, in districts where ordinary crime was unknown. One of their principal tasks was to observe, and report on, anyone involved in
any activity that threatened the state. That was wide enough to include Irish language and dancing classes and the Gaelic Athletic Association, the trade unions - especially the burgeoning Irish Transport and General Workers' Union - moderate Nationalist groups like the Irish National Foresters, as well as Sinn Fein. Their reports were so comprehensive that a Chief Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, was able to boast to Parliament: "We have the reports of the RIC who send us in, almost daily, reports from almost every district in Ireland, which enable us to form a correct general estimate of the feeling of the countryside in different localities." An official report in 1919 said it was largely due to the efficiency of the RIC's excellent organisation that the 1916 rebellion had been kept within bounds and speedily suppressed throughout the country.
The secessionist Dáil Éireann passed a decree of social ostracism against members of the RIC. This decree was enforced very effectively, forcing many policemen to resign and making it difficult to recruit replacements. Together with a large decrease in numbers below its establishment, the decree ensured morale among the RIC was chronically poor during the Anglo-Irish War. It was partly for this reason that the authorities later turned to recruiting thousands of demobbed ex- servicemen and officers as members of the RIC. Because of the incongruous mix of khaki and bottle green in their early, makeshift uniforms they were called the "Black and Tans" and later became notorious for their reprisals against the civilian population.
In Limerick, the circumstances of Robert Byrne's death - the jury's verdict blaming a policeman for the fatal wound - added to the bitterness with which the police were regarded. At the annual conference of the Drapers' Assistants' Association, held in Dublin during the period of the Soviet, a Limerick delegate said: "the military seemed to be friendly and the police were the only body who were not friendly."
In his speech to Robert Byrne's inquest, Patrick Lynch KC set the tone of Limerick's differing attitude to the military and police in the days that followed. He asked how the semi-military police force had not turned their revolvers upon the attacking party of healthy men, but had killed the patient in the bed. The Army, he said, were discharging what to them was a disagreeable and unpleasant task. He would say nothing that would make anyone think that those for whom he appeared entertained any feelings but one towards the military, because, by the instructions of the relatives of Mr. Byrne, he would state publicly that they wished to express their appreciation of the courtesy and kindness extended to them in their trouble and sorrow by the military officers and men with whom they were brought into contact. When they left the city, they would leave it with the good wishes of every friend of Mr. Byrne.
Mr Lynch regretted to say he could not join in a similar expression of the manner in which the RIC force acted since the unfortunate tragedy. He could only attribute that to want of judgement. They lost their heads. Some of them acted in a manner which, he was sure, they, on cool reflection, would regret. Lynch's words were harsh, though in mitigation of the RIC's behaviour it might be argued that they had seen one of their own members shot dead in the Workhouse incident, and another seriously wounded. The military, who had not suffered casualties, could perhaps therefore take a more benign view of events.
After a first week of triumphant success, the Limerick Soviet was moving into its most testing period. Now the attitudes of the local employers, the Catholic Bishop and clergy and the national trade union leadership became crucial to what would happen next.