"We are spectators today of a very bold and candid experiment in Irish Syndicalism."
- "Irish Times" editorial on "The Strike at Limerick", April 23, 1919.
In April 1919, Major J C P Wood intended to fly the Atlantic from East to West, using Limerick as his departure point, to win a ten thousand pounds prize offered by the London "Daily Mail". Major Wood never quite made it to Limerick in his attempt, but his plan did ensure the presence in the city, from the very start of the Soviet, of a large international press corps. Expecting to cover one major news story, these journalists found another one under their noses and cabled their reports diligently around the world.
The strides made by aircraft and flying during World War One meant there was considerable post-War interest in the commercial and other possibilities offered by air travel. In early 1919, the Air Ministry still controlled the air and prohibited civilian flying, though it was announced that civilian flying would resume on the first of May. The newspapers speculated eagerly on the changes the establishment of civilian air links would bring. Schemes had been put forward for a service between London and Cape Town and London to Egypt had already been flown. Hull Chamber of Commerce was supporting a scheme for a service to Scandinavia across the North Sea. There was talk of linking Ireland to the North of England and Wales by a service to Liverpool.
But, overshadowing all of these proposals was the challenge of the unconquered Atlantic. The London "Daily Mail" offered a prize of ten thousand pounds to the first aviator to cross the Atlantic, and the manufacturers of "State Express" cigarettes were prepared to add two thousand guineas to it. Six contestants came forward to try for the prize.
The big problem facing the flyers was the weather. "Like Cleopatra", the "Irish Times" commented in an editorial, "the Atlantic weather has an infinite variety. Anticyclones drift hither and thither above the Ocean's broad expanse, and the airman may encounter seventeen different brands of weather in his flight in as many hundreds of miles. The pioneer of the crossing will owe his success partly to daring, partly to skill, but most of all, perhaps, to luck."
By flying Westward from Ireland, Major Wood was facing into the prevailing winds, increasing the estimated flight time from twenty to thirty hours. But he would have the advantage of spending most of his flying time in daylight. By following the line of the River Shannon to Loop Head, in County Clare, the Major was positioning himself for a direct flight line across the Atlantic to St. John's in Newfoundland, a distance of around 1,750 miles. Another not inconsiderable advantage was the much greater likelihood in a Westward flight of making landfall in North America, compared with an Eastward flight which might miss the British Isles altogether, if the plane was blown off course. The "Daily Mail" rules stipulated that an Eastward flight had to touch land in either Ireland or Britain.
The Major's planned departure caused great excitement in Limerick. A seventy acre field at Bawnmore, some miles outside the city, was prepared for the flight, with a huge whitewashed cross marked in the centre of the flying ground. Bawnmore had no hangars, but it had been temporarily used before the War by the Royal Flying Corps and it was close to the Shannon, an admirable navigational guide. It had the advantage too of being an elevated site, and the flight would not be delayed by a boggy runway if the weather was bad.
Six hundred gallons of fuel were stored in Limerick in preparation for the flight and it was speculated that the military might move it to Bawnmore, if the carters refused to carry it because of the strike. But this proved not to be necessary. Sir Stephen Quinn, one of the local notables involved in assisting the Major's preparations went to see the Strike Committee. John Cronin said that they had no objection to the Major starting his flight from Limerick, provided he admitted he was starting there by permission of the strikers. Sir Stephen said he would convey the message to Wood, and subsequently the fuel was moved to Bawnmore. The Soviet also granted permits to drivers to bring press reporters and photographers to the take off point.
Wood planned to make his flight, with his navigator Captain Wyllie, in a four thousand eight hundred pounds weight Short-Rolls Royce machine called "The Shamrock". The idea was that as the fuel was consumed the plane would become lighter, and it could stay in the air for up to forty two hours at speeds of between eighty five and ninety five miles an hour. Both airmen wore a complicated type of heated clothing. Wires ran through their combination suits from a small dynamo operated by a propeller, and with the flick of a switch, they were able to heat themselves electrically. On the left side of the plane was a row of thermos flasks filled with hot coffee and a couple of flasks of brandy.
Wood and Wyllie proposed to take plenty of sandwiches and tablet preparations of chocolate, fruit cake and meat. These, "The Times" noted, were in case they were blown a long way off course and had "to land in some out-of-the-way part of the American Continent."
After several postponements because of bad weather, excitement in Limerick reached fever pitch as people awaited the Major's arrival from England. On the second day of the Strike, crowds of people went to Bawnmore in anticipation of his arrival. Two days later, there was another exodus from the city by car and bicycle. No less than a score of cinema newsreel photographers prepared stands to get the best vantage point and stills photographers took up positions on walls or on the adjoining hills. There were journalists there from all parts of the World, including a big American contingent with waiting cars on standby to carry special telegraph messengers with express dispatches. At one stage, a military scouting plane hovered over the crowds.
All eyes strained Eastwards, towards the Silvermines and Galtee Mountains, for the first glimpse of "The Shamrock". But it was not to be seen. After four hours flying, Major Wood's plane cut out over the Irish Sea and he was forced to ditch a short distance from the Anglesey coast. A group of picnickers who saw the plane in difficulties put a small boat out to sea and picked up the plane's two occupants. Wood made this laconic comment to one of the rescuers: "Atlantic flight biffed!"
Wood had left the Royal Flying Corps aerodrome at Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey, in beautiful weather and in good spirits. Over the eleven previous days, three engines had been tested before one was fitted permanently. To find eight reliable sparking plugs, four hundred were tested. A Church of England chaplain prayed "God Speed !" for the flyers and all the aerodrome hands gave hearty cheers as the Major took off.
Major Wood's adventure was only one of several transatlantic flights planned that week. But his was the only one to go Westwards, and he was actually the first competitor into the air in the "Daily Mail" race. In Newfoundland, flight pioneers like Hawker, Morgan and the Australian Raynham grappled with snowstorms, preventing take-off. A journalist asked Raynham why, unlike other contestants, his plane did not carry a life raft. He replied that this was due to the fact that he intended to cross the Atlantic, not to fall into it!
All along the West coast of Ireland preparations were made to keep a look-out for the first plane to make land, and to convey the news to London. The "Irish Times" said the first "watcher of the skies" who got a glimpse of the first arrival would be a humble actor in one of the most notable events in the history of the world, whether fisherman, coastguard or village curate going his daily round. On June 15 1919, the aviators John William Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown landed their plane in a boggy field near Clifden, in County Galway, and claimed the place in history that Wood and the others had so desperately sought.
Apart from bringing news of the Soviet to a world-wide readership, the presence of the international press corps had an added advantage for John Cronin and his colleagues. The foreign journalists were able to file their copy through the American cable station at Valentia Island, in County Kerry, and so could avoid censorship or interference with their material by the British authorities. On the other hand, all reports sent, and published, in Irish and British newspapers were still subject to official censorship - another one of the powers exercised under the Defence of the Realm Act. Indeed, many contemporary newspapers reports on Limerick carry the legend "Passed by the Official Censor".
Among the foreign journalists based in Limerick at the time were Mr Morris of the Associated Press of America, whose reports were syndicated to seven hundred and fifty United States newspapers, Ruth Russell of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote a book called "What's the Matter with Ireland ?", and Mr Philmore of the Paris "Le Matin". In its edition of April 15, 1919, "Le Matin" carried a short report on what it called "A Political Strike at Limerick". Each evening, the Soviet propaganda committee held briefings for the foreign journalists, indicating the sophistication with which they undertook their task.
But, relations between the Soviet and the press did not always run smoothly. One British pictorial daily carried a paragraph describing "Limerick's Comic Opera Strike". When the newspaper reached Limerick, a picket was immediately sent to the hotel where the offending correspondent was staying. In less than half an hour, he was standing before the Strike Committee. Pale and trembling, he explained that the heading had been written by a sub-editor and that he could not be held responsible. The Committee warned him that if anything further detrimental to the strike appeared in his newspaper, they would cut off light, food and water from his hotel. The warning had the desired effect.
The London Correspondent of a newspaper called the "Cork Constitution" claimed the strikers were trying to intimidate correspondents. He alleged threats were being made to reporters if the reports which appeared did not suit the views of the strike leaders. An English news agency alleged that Post Office staff in Limerick were scrutinising reporters' cables and that "any journalist who told the truth was a marked man." However, some days later, British and American journalists repudiated allegations that they were being intimidated in their work by sympathisers of the Soviet. A letter refuting the allegation was sent to the Limerick Postmaster by the special correspondents of the "Daily News", "Daily Express", "Daily Chronicle", "Manchester Guardian" and "Daily Mail". As representatives of the British press, they said, they desired to dissociate themselves from this reflection on the integrity of the Limerick Post Office staff. At the same time, they wanted to thank the Postmaster and his staff for the great courtesy they had shown them during the strike.
The "Manchester Guardian" was severely critical of the Government's use of what it termed one of the most drastic provisions of the DORA regulations against Limerick. It called for the attention of Parliament. The scheduling of special military areas under DORA was intended purely as a safeguard against German espionage during the War in great naval and military centres such as the North of Scotland and Dover. The permit system was used only to detain suspects. The "Guardian" concluded: "It was certainly never contemplated as an instrument for the punishment of Irish districts in which casual outrages had been committed."
In another comment, the "Guardian", obviously enjoying the Government's discomfiture, pointed out that the workers of Limerick in setting up a "provisional government" were merely following the example of Sir Edward Carson and his supporters who had blocked Home Rule for Ireland by threatening to establish the same in Ulster
Understandably, other British newspapers were more critical of the Soviet itself, of the motives behind it and of what it might lead to. "The Times" said Ireland had never been more prosperous and the bulk of the community objected very strongly to the wanton creation of industrial strife. The newspaper said any general strike could not last long without funds, and the Limerick workers were looking to England for help. "But we fancy that English working men have other uses for their money, now none too plentiful, and will hardly be willing to put it into a country which has grown affluent during the War", "The Times" speculated. The newspaper consoled itself with the belief that there was in reality no country where the doctrines of syndicalism were less likely to obtain a firm hold than Ireland.
The "Morning Post" took a serious view of the events in Limerick. The "Post" claimed Sinn Féin was secretly conducting affairs according to a definite plan. "When the local Soviets have obtained possession and control of the local resources Sinn Féin will thus control the greater part of Ireland....Unless the Government intervene, local control by Sinn Féin will include what is most important of all - control of the roads and railways." The "Morning Post", therefore, called for tougher Government measures. The "Daily Chronicle" too was convinced the strike was part of a Sinn Féin campaign.
From Limerick, the special correspondent of the "Daily Express" sent these graphic words: "The city is as much in military occupation as Cologne...There is nothing comparable with the situation today, outside certain Continental European countries. The leadership mean to win, and it certainly seems as if the workers of Ireland were with them....I have witnessed many strikes in England but never one bearing any resemblance to this. It is the grand slam, and it suggests possibilities on which it is not pleasant to ponder."
The "Westminster Gazette" was fairly measured in its comments. It said the transport workers were credited with the plan of attempting a general strike in Ireland, but it was admitted that this idea required financial support from Britain. The newspaper ruled that out as a possibility, and it said the Government had taken measures and was "very wisely allowing the strike to blow off steam."
The "Pall Mall Gazette" said it was not sure that the military measures out of which the strike arose were free from a provocative element, but the strike was for political and not for industrial purposes and therefore "without justification from the standpoint of constitutional Labour."
In Belfast, the Unionist "News Letter" saw the direction of Government policy as being in capable hands and it commended General Griffin's "tactful" behaviour. The "Irish News", a long time supporter of the now declining Irish National Party was scathing in its criticism of the strike. It denounced it as a "picturesque form of protest, but it will not worry Dublin Castle in the slightest degree....", while Limerick itself would suffer severely if the strike continued for many days. "What could be gained", the "Irish News" asked, "even if the people remained idle for a week, a fortnight or a month ? Many traders and a few manufacturers might be beggared, thousands of wage-earners would sacrifice their incomes, thousands would go hungry, but no soldiers' rations would be curtailed to the extent of an ounce." The voice of old-fashioned Belfast Nationalism concluded: "The wisdom of those who invented and promoted this costly kind of protest against an unjust Castle 'proclamation' must be regarded as more than questionable."
While the news reporting of the "Irish Independent" on the Soviet was often colourful, and seemed fair, the paper's only editorial on the matter was a curious mixture of criticism of the authorities
balanced by criticism of the strikers and, above all, a fear that matters might escalate into a general strike. Given the conservative nature of its proprietors' politics, the "Independent" was happy to see the Government challenged, but not by a movement led by organised Labour. Down that road lay dangers for the Nationalist middle-classes themselves.
The "Independent" began on a stirring note: "Militarism has been crushed in Prussia only to be set up in Ireland in a way that is a negation of civil liberty." The authorities were going too far; the ordinary criminal law was enough to deal with outrages or raids. Putting an entire city under practically the same rule as if it were in a war zone did not capture and punish the evildoers. A whole community was punished and subjected to needless and wanton inconvenience. The resulting resentment lessened the chances of catching the perpetrators of crimes. "Limerick, a singularly crimeless city before the unfortunate occurrence of a few weeks ago, is besieged and treated as if all its inhabitants were diabolical criminals", the editorial complained.
In a neat twist of argument, the paper reminded the authorities that brutal and savage murders were not uncommon in Britain and there had been serious riots there, but no city or district "on the other side of the Channel" had been put under military rule.
Turning to the workers, the "Independent" thought their action "hasty" but felt sure that while Irish Nationalists differed as to the wisdom of the action the majority of them would sympathise with its objects. But the paper would not countenance an escalation of Limerick into a national, general strike, saying it would be "productive of very serious results for the country as a whole."
The Limerick strikers had, unthinkingly, played into the Government's hands by their action and instead of embarrassing the authorities were simply increasing the loss, inconvenience and suffering of the people at large. In any event, the "Independent" pointed out, Ulster, or a large part of it, would not respond to any call for a national strike, "so that the loss and inconvenience would fall exclusively on Nationalist Ireland."
The "Irish Times" devoted three editorials to the Soviet. On the morning after the rescue of Robert Byrne the newspaper had three targets in its editorial sights. Seizing on the phrase "no arrests have been made", the "Irish Times" said that sentence had been the burden of all the recent stories of outrage. In its view, a state of terrorism prevailed throughout the country. The Government owed an urgent duty to the people to strengthen the arm of the law to assure decent men of such protection as would embolden them to help it to save their country's peace and honour. If the Crown forces were insufficient, they must be increased; if the law was inadequate the Government must seek new powers from Parliament, according to the editorial.
The "Irish Times" then turned to two other sources for support. They appealed to "the acknowledged leaders of the Sinn Féin movement" to express their horror for the crime of murder and they called on the Roman Catholic Church to "enlist all its tremendous sanctions on the side of morality and law." Individual churchmen had denounced individual crimes with fitting fervour, but the hour demanded nothing less than a solemn protest and warning from the whole body of the Hierarchy.
A week later, after the first day of the Soviet had ended, the "Irish Times" returned to the theme of "Lawlessness in Ireland". The teachings of Sinn Féin, the "Irish Times" said, had created a far-reaching atmosphere of sedition. It had got into the heads of thousands of young Irishmen who thought it was a fine thing to give the maximum of trouble to authority - and the Irishman was the most ingenious maker of trouble in the world.
Referring specifically to Limerick, the newspaper conceded that the measures taken were pure coercion and furnished no remedy for the root- causes of Nationalist discontent. But they were not intended to be, the editorial pointed out. The Government's first duty was "the maintenance of the King's authority and the protection of life and property....So long as crime and violence can be committed with impunity throughout large areas of Ireland, the Government must suppress them forcibly."
The "Irish Times" turned again to "moderate" Nationalists and the Catholic Church. The Government's actions, it argued, were an unsatisfactory substitute for a public opinion that would discourage, denounce and expose violence. "We have no such public opinion today because the leaders of one half of Nationalist Ireland are preachers of sedition, and the leaders of the other half are unwilling, or afraid,
to open their mouths."
The Roman Catholic Bishop of Ross, Doctor Kelly, had told "his people the plain truth in his sermon on Palm Sunday." The Bishop's fear of "the influence of Irish Bolshevism on the religious authority of the Church" seemed to the "Irish Times" to be so well-founded that the silence of the Church as a whole filled the editorial writer with surprise.
Just over a week later, the "Irish Times" devoted its final editorial to "The Strike at Limerick", again using the term "Soviet" to describe the way the city was being run. The paper saw the attempts to extend the strike to all of Ireland as a "very bold and candid experiment in Irish Syndicalism." But, taking the same view as the "Independent", the "Irish Times" said there could not be a national strike because "the sturdy and well-organised Labour of North East Ulster will have nothing to say to it. The truth is that Syndicalism and Bolshevism, with their common motto 'What is yours is mine, and what is mine is my own' never will make any headway in this country. In our farming classes the sense of property is as sacred and strong as in the French. Our middle-classes are hard-working individualists. The bulk of Irish Labour, both urban and rural, is restless today, but it is shrewd and intelligent."
More specifically on Limerick, the "Irish Times" hoped the Irish people would be sobered and instructed by the story. "We are not sorry General Griffin decided to give the local Soviet a free hand." The Soviet, the paper argued, had inflicted "more arbitrary restrictions on individual liberties than were ever attempted by Prussian bureaucracy in its mightiest hour."
This time, there was no reference to the Catholic Church's influence, but there was another appeal to moderate Nationalists: "The agitation is a challenge to British government in Ireland, against which some Irishmen have worked themselves up to a pitch so mad that they would prefer a bloodstained and bankrupt Bolshevism to an Ireland safe and progressive under British rule. Today, however, these men are acting with the tacit consent - though not, we are convinced with the genuine approval - of a majority of Irish Nationalists. The Nationalist Press does not criticise them. No Nationalist organisation has warned the country against their schemes."
Despite that type of critical comment, the people of Limerick were eager for news during the Soviet. When the morning mail train arrived, there was a wild rush for the Dublin morning papers and in twenty minutes they were all bought up. Demand for newspapers was so great that, in the evening, the newsboys were selling the "Herald" at three pence to six pence a copy.
The Soviet allowed the local Limerick papers to publish one issue a week carrying an imprint in bold type: "Published by Permission of the Strike Committee." But the Soviet itself also went into the newspaper business, publishing a daily news sheet called "The Worker's Bulletin". The "Bulletin" started simply enough, as a single sheet, more like a propaganda leaflet. But it ran for at least seven issues, and in its final editions was very much like a local newspaper of the time in content and format. Each edition of the "Bulletin" carried in bold type the legend: "Issued by the Limerick Proletariat". It was a clever mixture of news reports and propaganda leavened by some humour and it represented a fine achievement by the Propaganda Committee.
Another initiative of that Committee was their reply to the Government's statement disclaiming any responsibility for hardship caused to the citizens. The military posted typewritten copies of the statement in the streets but because they could not commandeer a printing works, they were severely handicapped in the propaganda war. The Soviet's reply was that they would rely on the old and proud traditions of Limerick to suffer any difficulties patiently.
So, after a week, the Soviet had succeeded better than either its friends or enemies could have imagined. Food, travel, finances and propaganda all appeared to be under control. The scene was set for the first major physical confrontation with the British military and for General Griffin's first divisive concession.