In January 1919 the Dail - the newly elected Irish assembly- proclaimed independence from Britain. The Irish War of Independence went into full swing. A guerrilla war had begun to spread and many were joining the burgeoning republican movement. Amongst the new recruits was Robert Byrne, a postal worker and active trade unionist in Limerick.
When his allegiances became known Byrne was sacked by his employer. The authorities also searched his house. A pistol was found -it could have been planted- and Byrne was arrested and put in prison. There Byrne went on hunger strike and lost consciousness. So he was moved and kept under police guard at St Camillus's Hospital.
The IRA resolved to liberate him. In the subsequent rescue attempt, staged on 6 April 1919, a constable Martin O'Brien was shot dead. Byrne himself was seriously injured and though he escaped he died soon after. Some 20,000 attended his funeral.
In response to these events the British Government declared on 9 April that the city was a special military area. The city had effectively been placed under martial law. Troops and tanks were on the streets and, as of Monday 14 April, those entering or leaving the city had to have special permits from the Royal Irish Constabulary. The city's United Trades and Labour Council, on which Byrne had been a delegate, had already responded on the 13th by calling a General Strike.
The Strike was to be co-ordinated by a special Workers Committee. What became known as the "Limerick Soviet" was up and running. It was under the auspices of the Committee that newspapers were published, food distribution was organised and later on -when finances ran short- that a new paper currency was printed.
Workers were effectively running the city, putting people's needs before profit. Even some soldiers were sympathetic. Harney (2009) says a Scottish regiment allowed many local workers past without asking them to show their permits. When the British Government found out the regiment was sent home and replaced with a more repressive one.
But after two weeks the backing of the trades unions -many of whom were still linked to the British TUC- and also that of the church locally began to wane. There was pressure to negotiate.
Negotiations led to martial law being lifted in return for the Committee issuing a proclamation -which it did on April 27, 1919- that the strike was over. The Limerick Soviet had shown though, however fleetingly, the potential for workers' self organisation under which real democracy can flourish.