"Limerick, famous all over the world for the quality of its bacon, will at the present rate soon be without the morning rasher."
- "The Irish Independent, April 19, 1919
The first, and most fundamental, task facing the strikers was that of literally feeding Limerick's thirty eight thousand inhabitants.
The suddenness with which the strike was called, and became effective, meant that rich and poor were taken unawares. On the first Monday of the strike there was panic over the continuity of food supply and an "Irish Independent" headline warned of "The Peril of Famine". That evening, in its first major assertion of power, the Strike Committee ordered the bakers to resume work. In its report on this development, the "Irish Times" for the first time referred to the Committee as the local "Soviet", though it is not quite clear from the context whether the reference was sarcastic or not. In any event, however, the report indicates that even on the first day of the strike it was being referred to in some quarters as a "Soviet".
After the Soviet's order, at an early hour on Tuesday morning, crowds of women and children lined up outside the bakeries in the hope of getting bread and it was handed out to them fresh from the ovens.
Describing the shortage of food on the first day of the Soviet, the "Irish Times" waxed lyrical: "In this land of plenty, in the heart of the Golden Vale, it is not easy for the stranger to procure food. The bakeries are closed and the butchers' shops are shut, with the result that the hotel larders are scantily stocked. Biscuits and cheese were never so appetising as today, when they sustained many a weary traveller through a trying time. Milk, however, could hardly be had, though there are creameries everywhere. The visitor from Dublin, of course, did not mind the shortage of butter, but he did miss his margarine...."
On that first day, other foodstuffs, potatoes for example, were running alarmingly low, and fresh meat was impossible to obtain. All the public houses rigidly enforced the order to close. Even the most favoured customers could not buy a drink anywhere and the "Irish Independent" wryly noted in heavy black type: "Limerick is an absolutely dry city."
If there were no public houses, at least the citizens still had the cinemas for entertainment. Some of these were glad to open with notices outside the door: "Open by authority of the Strike Committee". But there was a plaintive letter of protest to the "Irish Independent" about the closure of the Limerick Free Library. The writer, "Munchin", admitted that the general strike was in defence of the public, but he warned the new "powers-that-be that in striving for the public rights they should not trample on public privileges". The Public Park, where the Library was situated, had not been closed. So, "Munchin" enquired, if it was possible to look after the recreation of the body, why not recreation of the mind ? This, he argued, was especially true when "time hangs heavily on many men's hands, and newspapers, even for money are hard to get."
The Soviet's control of the city's business ran deep. Drapery and boot shops were not opened, so that anyone needing a collar and tie had to get it surreptitiously from a friendly proprietor, or get a Soviet permit. An American journalist staying in the city had to make an eloquent appeal to a Soviet subcommittee for permission to buy a shirt. Even chemists' shops were confined to limited Sunday opening hours.
But, from early on, the Soviet claimed to have the food situation well in hand. They sat in session in the Mechanics' Institute from early morning until late at night, carrying out their arrangements with thoroughness and completeness of detail. They issued hundreds - another report says "sheaves" - of permits to shops to open and supply foodstuffs, between two and five o'clock in the afternoon.
The Soviet strictly controlled the price of food. They issued posters throughout the city showing a list of retail prices for essential foodstuffs. The posters warned that drastic measures would be taken to prevent profiteering. Pickets wearing distinctive badges patrolled the streets. They ensured no shops opened without permission and that they were not overcrowded during the hours of opening.
In general, the provision merchants acted in harmony with the Soviet and they kept prices at normal levels. After a week, the "Independent" commented: "It is certainly a remarkable tribute to the skill and organisation of the Strike Committee that while there has been a general suspension of all branches of industry in the city now for seven days, there has been no scarcity of food." Large purchases were discouraged, so hoarding was prevented.
Given that the "Irish Times" was always critical of the strike, its grudgingly favourable comments on the food situation on the same date are an interesting indication of the Soviet's effectiveness. In a comment on the food supply, the newspaper said: ".... though it is daily diminishing, it should not be thought there is immediate danger of serious distress...the people there are, therefore, well supplied with milk, and they also have fair supplies of other necessaries."
It would be wrong to give the impression, though, that the Soviet's relations with the city's business people were entirely harmonious. For many of them, believers in the rights of property, it must have
been galling to have to take orders from a group of mere workers and to hear John Cronin declare: "The necessary steps have been taken to ensure a sufficient supply of food for the people...."
After the first week of the strike, the "Irish Times" found some business people who were "suffering considerable inconvenience and loss as a result of closing their establishments, and they would be glad to see the strike ended and the old order of things restored." They may have been among the traders who, at that time, threatened to open their premises in spite of Soviet opposition. On the second Monday of the Soviet, some shopkeepers did, indeed, do that but they were punished the following day by having their opening delayed.
No deliveries of bread were allowed to shops or private homes - everyone had to buy their supplies directly from the bakeries. Farmers from outside the city, normally dependent on bread carts for deliveries, had to come in to collect their supplies. As the "Independent" noted: "...it was no uncommon spectacle to see an aged peasant driving an ass and cart laden with bread through the streets."
Throughout the life of the Soviet, the problem of bread supplies remained crucial. It was closely linked to supplies of flour, obviously, but also to supplies of coal, since the bakery ovens were coal-fired. To ensure supplies of flour, the Soviet gave permission for the unloading of seven thousand tons of Canadian grain at the docks.
It appears that in some instances the Soviet tried to requisition food supplies. Dublin Castle records note a file about a demand to Cleeves factory for "butter etc. required by the Transport Union."
Limerick's food problems offered the first opportunity for those who sympathised with the strike outside the city to give practical help. A Catholic priest, Father Kennedy of Ennis, County Clare, helped to organise the farmers in the South East of the county, near the city, to supply food to Limerick. The Soviet Food Committee was divided into two sections - one to receive food and the other to distribute it. Food depots were set up in Thomondgate, on the Clare side of the Shannon, because it was outside the controlled area. Four city councillors controlled the collection and distribution of food through four depots established by the Soviet.
The Clare farmers sent potatoes, milk, eggs, butter, tea, sugar and home made bread into the depots and these were sold at prices considerably below the market value. Through a combination of circumstances, the people of Limerick suffered no shortage of milk and it was available at a very cheap price. Because of the closure of Cleeves' condensed milk factory, the farmers found themselves with supplies on hand. This was sold to the city's poor at three pence or four pence a quart, compared with the usual price of seven pence. The maximum price set by the Soviet was four pence.
Towards the end of the Soviet's existence, the supply of food from County Clare received ecclesiastical approval at a high level. At Sunday Masses in the Diocese of Killaloe, the priests appealed to the congregations to help Limerick with food supplies, saying they did so with the sanction and approval of the Bishop, Doctor Fogarty. There was a generous response, including one gift of twenty tons of potatoes.
Other more unorthodox methods were used to bring in food. In a memoir of the Soviet, the Trades Council Treasurer, James Casey, recalls that relays of boats with muffled oars were successfully used to run food and other supplies through the blockade. On other occasions, Casey recalled, the funeral hearses from the Union Hospital, outside the military cordon, did not always contain corpses.
Cork and other centres offered to send food, as did a number of British trade unions. Farmers and shopkeepers outside Limerick who wished to send gifts of food were asked to send them by rail to the city, consigned to the "Food Commission, Mechanics' Hall, Limerick."
Any food received in this way was to be stocked in wholesale stores under the Commission's control and then distributed to shopkeepers who were willing to recognise the authority of the Strike Committee. If necessary, the Commission would open supplementary retail shops.
The quantity of food sent by farmers, especially from County Clare, in support of what was clearly a Labour agitation raises intriguing questions in view of the many strikes involving farm labourers at that time. Not all farmers were willing donors to the strikers' stockpile of food. A veteran of the Soviet, Dan Clancy, recalled an incident that occurred in the "Little Market", off Robert Street, when the strikers compelled the farmers to give away food for "half nothing". As the police stood by helplessly, the strikers ordered the farmers from the market. Clancy recalled sardonically: "They all flocked to the Republic". Since the normal methods and outlets for disposing of their produce were closed, many farmers decided to make a patriotic virtue out of necessity. But the involvement of Father Kennedy, in Ennis, suggests a degree of organisation by Sinn Fein and its sympathisers, and of course, one cannot rule out feelings of genuine nationalism on the part of some farmers.
Pig and cattle fairs were seriously disrupted by the Strike. The April Munster Fair, held in the second week of the strike, had no more than one tenth of the usual supply of cattle. Buyers were few and little business was done. The pig-buyers were seriously affected by a prohibition on the killing of about two hundred pigs which had been bought during the first two days of the Soviet. Bacon supplies were exhausted in some of the shops. "Limerick", the "Irish Independent" noted, "famous all over the world for the quality of its bacon will, at the present rate, soon be without the morning rasher." The military themselves were forced to make special arrangements to bring supplies by train to Limerick from Dublin and Cork.
After food, fuel was next in importance. The Soviet allowed coal and coke merchants to open between ten and five, but supplies were running alarmingly low, and very limited quantities were given out. In general, the coal merchants were hostile and refused to open their yards. Rather than force a violent confrontation, however, the Soviet reluctantly accepted this. But the Soviet warned the coal merchants they were not to co-operate with the military by supplying them with fuel, nor should they supply customers who had obtained military permits.
After a week, the cautious "Irish Times" commented that "while the food question seems to have been solved for the present, the question of money is causing anxiety to many families..." The majority of trade unions seemed to have been prepared to pay their members strike pay for the duration of the Soviet, but a key trade union like the National Union of Railwaymen made it clear that it would not. In addition, at the end of the first week, while outside food supplies were readily forthcoming, little money had been received.
Faced with this prospect, the Soviet took one of its most historic and, indeed, spectacular decisions. This was to print its own currency, in denominations of one, five and ten shillings. The decision does not seem to have been based on any ideological considerations, but was a straightforward pragmatic response to a shortage of money.
Tom Johnson, Treasurer of the Trade Union Congress, who had been sent by the Executive to liaise with the Limerick strikers, said the security for the notes, in the first place, would be the stocks of food being presented free by outsider sympathisers, then the financial support and integrity of the workers of Limerick, backed by the national feeling. Later, the currency was backed by the Trades Council and the Trade Union Congress itself and accepted by approved shops. A list was compiled of merchants and shopkeepers who were willing to give credit to the Trades Council.
Johnson said the notes issue was "sound finance" and was a sign the strike could be prolonged. The "Irish Times" saw the currency more as a type of promissory note or food voucher and therefore as "a sign of growing financial weakness...The impression, therefore, is gaining ground that the crisis has passed and the that the close of the week will synchronise with the close of the strike."
The Soviet currency notes were about the size of an ordinary Treasury note. On the outside border were the words: "General Strike against British Militarism 1919" and on the face was printed: "The workers of Limerick promise to pay the bearer the sum of ____ shillings." The notes were signed for the Trades Council by James Casey as Treasurer and John Cronin as Chairman Šand they varied in colour according to their face value.
There has been controversy over whether or not some notes were counterfeited. In an article in the "Irish Times", in May 1969, Jim Kemmy used illustrations of two notes denominated as one shilling and five shillings. The illustrations were copied by the "Irish Times" from the publication "Fifty Years of Liberty Hall", edited by Cathal O'Shannon. Subsequently, in a letter to the newspaper, a son of John Cronin - Jeremiah - challenged the authenticity of his father's signature on the notes reproduced. The signature in the illustration accompanying his letter was certainly different from the earlier illustration. But Jeremiah Cronin offered no explanation or theory as to how the difference in signatures arose. Opinion differs as to whether the notes were forgeries, or whether someone signed them in John Cronin's name with his delegated authority. After the strike was over, surplus money was sought as souvenirs and this too might account for the forgeries.
A subcommittee of the propaganda committee was responsible for the printing and issuing of the currency and, not unexpectedly, the subcommittee mainly consisted of accounts staff from large firms like Cleeves, the bacon factories, the flour mills and the Corporation. According to James Casey, when the notes were ultimately redeemed, a small surplus remained in a fund that had been subscribed to by sympathisers in all parts of Ireland.
Whatever the original motivation for the issuing of currency, that decision alone places Limerick in a unique position in Labour history. At the time, the significance of the currency was not lost on socialists. At the annual conference of the Independent Labour Party, in Britain, "Councillor Cradford of Edinburgh said that they ought to do something to encourage the 'Limerick Soviet' which had got over its financial difficulties by the issue of a paper currency of its own. He would like to see the working-class of this country do the same. In spite of what Mr (Ramsay) McDonald had said, the 'Limerick Soviet' was the first working-class Soviet on practical lines established in these islands..."
Transport and communications were important enough to merit the setting up of a permits committee under the charge of four city councillors. The carters who worked at conveying perishable goods displayed printed cards, sometimes on the horse's bridle: "Working under the authority of the Strike Committee." The committee issued permits to merchants to obtain and carry commodities like coal, butter and flour from the railway station to shops. Doctors, chauffeurs and car drivers got permits when necessary. The only vehicles allowed on the streets were those owned by people who had appeared before the permits committee. Any other cars were immediately ordered off the streets by the workers' patrols. In all, the Soviet issued thousands of transport permits.
An American army officer arrived by train and got the necessary military permit to enter the city. He intended to visit relatives outside Limerick but he could not induce any of the hackney carriers to drive him to his destination. After a time, he appeared before the permits committee and got permission to travel. He delivered a spirited speech, in which he promised to expose British rule in Ireland when he returned to the United States. "I guess", he concluded, "it is some puzzle to know who rules in these parts. You have to get a military permit to get in, and be brought before a committee to get a permit to leave."
All in all, the Soviet and its subcommittees carried off the job of feeding and regulating the lives of thirty eight thousand Limerick citizens with remarkable effectiveness. Not a single case of looting was reported, nor did a single court case come up for hearing at the petty sessions. After eight days in the city, an American journalist commented that he had not seen one person under the influence of drink nor a single disorderly incident. Given human nature, however, that generalised assertion seems unlikely to be true. But in several reports, various newspapers commented favourably on the peace and good order prevailing in the city and the absolute control exercised by the Soviet and its "Ministers".
But the name of Limerick, and its remarkable achievements, were soon to receive World-wide news coverage due to the fortuitously planned arrival there of a celebrated traveller and adventurer.