The Waterford Soviet: Fact or fancy?

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2000), News, Volume 8

On Monday 12 April l920, the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress called a twenty-four-hour general strike for the following day. The aim of the stoppage was to voice indignation at the detention of republicans on hunger-strike. Sixty-six prisoners being held in Mountjoy without charge or trial had begun the hunger-strike for political status on 5 April. Few at the time understood that a hunger-striker might survive for weeks, and deaths were expected daily. The protest soon generated an intense emotional response, expressed with a fervent religiosity. Thousands gathered each day outside Mountjoy to recite the rosary, and the Catholic bishops issued a statement endorsing the demand for political status, and holding the authorities morally responsible for the outcome of the crisis.

The strike call

The Congress’s call to action was written well within the parameters of this national consensus. It emphasised that workers had a moral, humanitarian, and national duty to help the prisoners. It did not refer to any other motives or aims. Yet, once the general strike began, it acquired a class, and even revolutionary character. Throughout nationalist Ireland, the strike was enforced by local workers’ councils, many of which assumed control of their areas in the style of soviets, complete with red guards. This juxtaposition of consensus and class, of Catholic piety and Soviet Russian imagery, of the assertion of workers’ power and gratuitous service to nationalism, encapsulated the enigma of labour politics during the independence struggle; and has left historians divided as to how seriously to treat contemporary ‘red flaggery’. A look at one of the  most elaborate of these ephemeral soviets may provide some answers.

Events in Waterford

Labour had already staged two general strikes: against conscription in 1918; and one marking May Day in 1919, and observers were impressed with its speed, discipline, and efficiency. The strike option in 1920 was first mooted on Sunday 11 April, and a decision was taken by the Congress executive on Monday morning. Waterford was informed of this by telegram that afternoon. Luke Larkin, president of Waterford Workers’ Council, promptly had an advertisement of a general meeting of workers in the City Hall at 8.30pm inserted in the local Evening News. Before the meeting, Larkin led a delegation to the City Council, asking that ‘every man who called himself an Irishman and a Catholic should forget [their] differences’ and unite in the fight to govern themselves. The Sinn Féin-controlled Council readily gave its support, and the mayor allowed the strike committee to operate from the City Hall, a gesture that would acquire key importance in the myth of the soviet.
On Tuesday morning, the city was ‘as quiet almost as a cemetery’. Few workplaces, other than the food, fuel, and communications services exempted from the strike, were still open. At noon, a huge assembly lined up in front of the City Hall, and walked to the cathedral for the rosary, red badges being worn ‘by a great number of the processionists’. In the afternoon, the reverential atmosphere was enforced by pickets who toured hotels and pubs, ejecting ‘found ons’. Labour also demonstrated its authority through a permit system, and pickets were determined that ‘not a wheel should turn’ without the approval of the strike committee.
When, on Tuesday evening, Congress wired to say the strike was now indefinite, the strike committee intensified its display of power. Plans were made to publish a ‘workers’ daily bulletin’. As more exemptions from the shut-down were necessary to maintain essential services in a lengthy dispute, the committee consolidated its authority through its permit system. After another vast procession to the cathedral on Wednesday, large bodies of pickets, with red badges, and many armed with sticks, marched in military formation about the city, extending the writ of the strike committee wherever possible. Towards 5pm there were clashes in the city centre with Redmondites who came down from Ballybricken to heckle and jeer. The police stayed off-stage throughout.
Shortly after 5pm word came through that the British government had backed down, and agreed to release prisoners awaiting trial or deportation and in need of hospital treatment. The general strike was over. Labour was jubilant. Thousands flocked to the City Hall, where a red flag was ‘suspended’ from the building to loud cheers. Speaking from a window, the rhetoric of the strike leaders contrasted sharply with their moderate, consensual appeal to the City Council on Monday evening. Luke Larkin could hardly contain his excitement:

Fellow comrades, this manifestation of Labour’s power makes epoch [sic] in the history of the working classes…the cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland and the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour. James Connolly (cheers), oh, shades of Connolly, if you were only with us tonight to look with us upon the realisation of your great and many sacrifices (cheers).
Other speeches remarked on Labour’s new power, and how this power could be applied to redress any grievance. No one used the word ‘soviet’, though one speaker compared British government tyranny with Tsarism, adding, ‘That government of Russia fell, and fell through the hands of the Russian workers (applause)’. Before Amhrán na bhFiann brought the rally to a close, there was a rendition of The Red Flag. Evidently the song was still relatively unfamiliar, as three strike leaders sang the verses, and the crowd joined in the chorus.

Interpretations

In the press, the revolutionary theatre made a greater impression in Britain than in Ireland. Referring to Ireland generally, the Manchester Guardian observed on 20 April:

The direction of affairs passed during the strike to these [workers’] councils, which were formed not on a local but on a class basis…it is no exaggeration to trace a flavour of proletarian dictatorship about some aspects of the strike.

On 27 April, the Guardian featured an article headed ‘“Soviet” Government in Waterford’, which reported that a deputation of southern loyalists to number ten Downing Street had given Bonar Law a ‘full account’ of events in the city, which had been ‘taken over by a Soviet Commissioner and three associates’. On 24 and 28 April, the British Labour paper, the Daily Herald, carried articles on Waterford’s ‘Red Guards’:

A red flag floated over the Town Hall, and a sort of ‘Red Guard’ was established under three transport leaders. In short, the city was ruled by a Soviet during the time of the strike.

By contrast, the Irish press devoted little attention to the ‘red flaggery’; partly because nationalists had no wish to fuel loyalist propaganda that Sinn Féin was really ‘Bolshevist’, partly because ‘red flaggery’ was no longer a novelty in Ireland, and partly because the ‘soviets’ did not offer any immediate threat to class relations; none of them attempted to change the social order, and the status quo ante resumed with the termination of the strike. The only ‘soviet’ reference in Waterford’s pro-Sinn Féin press came in a speech to the City Council, in which the mayor said he was not perturbed at some newspaper reports of him coming under ‘soviet government’. On the contrary, he congratulated

the Soviet Government of Waterford on a very effective, masterly, and successful demonstration, and [hoped] the time will not be long in coming when the Soviet Government of Waterford will have an opportunity of again demonstrating the powers which it undoubtedly possesses.

For their part, Congress leaders were wary of encouraging rank-and-file class militancy. Indeed, one reason for the general strikes of 1918, 1919, and 1920, was to provide a safe consensual outlet for the radicalism bubbling at the base of the movement. The often exuberant organ of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, the Voice of Labour, confined its coverage of the stoppage to brief reports on 24 April, and cautioned against applying the general strike tactic to social or industrial issues:

A word of warning is necessary… [the strike] was a demonstration of moral power…It was sheer fear of public opprobrium which saved the men…So let us keep our heads; don’t overstrain the loyalty of our members; don’t demand a national strike for a small objective.

However, once turned on, the tap could not be turned off so easily. The dynamic of the national strike did carry over into the social arena.
In March, the National Union of Dock Labourers had declared its intention to embargo exports of butter and bacon in protest at the British government’s removal of price controls on these products. One day after the general strike, the Congress executive ended its hedging and backed the embargo. It further urged trades councils to form food control committees and be prepared to enforce ‘fair’ prices. This was done, not least in Waterford, and a dispute with bacon and butter merchants dragged on until August, when the parties reached a settlement under Dáil arbitration. It was the first time that Congress had sanctioned direct action on a social issue.

Conclusion

If the soviet was political theatre, Waterford Workers’ Council’s ambition to demonstrate possibilities was real enough. The red flag was not just a Labour emblem, but had become synonymous with direct action and workers’ control. That was understood. The implications of the political prisoners’ strike for questions like the food embargo were inescapable, and the roll-over effect is conveyed in a letter from Tom MacPartlin, a moderate member of the Congress executive. The letter suggests too that events in Waterford were acquiring mythical proportions:

it was good to hear how Waterford and other centres acted during the two days stoppage. Luke Larkin was controller of the whole South. Our entrance into the arena of fixing prices for food has also met with a large measure of success and will make the profiteers recognise that Labour is a force to be reckoned with in Ireland in the future.

Whether Waterford’s action deserves to be called a soviet or not, that’s what it meant.


Emmet O’Connor lectures in history at the University of Ulster, Magee College.

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