Rare Irish Banknotes: the Limerick “Soviet” of 1919

During the Irish War of Independence, the City of Limerick was very unusual insofar as it issued its own currency – a series of low denomination banknotes.  It is the only instance of a labour organisation doing so, not on in Ireland but also throughout the UK.  It is the first physical sign in a split within the umbrella party of the enlarged Sinn Féin party after the 1917 Election and it was a sign of things to come in the Civil War of 1922-23.  It also clearly demonstrated the inability of a communist-style government to function within an Irish social context.

What was it?

The Limerick Soviet was a short-lived, self-declared Soviet-style local government that existed from 15 to 27 April 1919 in the City of Limerick and its immediate environs in response to a general strike was organised by the Limerick Trades and Labour Council, as a protest against the British army’s declaration of a “Special Military Area” under the Defence of the Realm Act.

  • This “SMA” covered most of Limerick City and parts of the surrounding county.
  • The Limerick Soviet controlled the City of Limerick (south of the Shannon) within this military cordon
  • The Limerick Soviet (RTE documentary clip, 6:52 minutes)

Limerick SMA 1919

Why did this happen?

The Irish War of Independence turned violent in January 1919 with the raid at Soloheadbeg in Co Tipperary.  The following months saw an escalation of the violence as the initial civil disobedience campaign was seeing little tangible results.

On April 6th, 1919 the IRA tried to liberate Robert Byrne, who was under arrest by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in a hospital, being treated for the effects of a hunger strike.  In the rescue attempt RIC Constable Martin O’Brien was fatally wounded and another policeman was seriously injured.  Byrne was wounded in the rescue attempt and died later on in the same day.

In response, on April 9th, British Army Brigadier-General CJ Griffin declared the city to be a Special Military Area, with RIC permits required for all wanting to enter and leave the city as of Monday, April 14th.  British Army troops and armoured vehicles were deployed throughout the city of Limerick to enforce this order.

The Local Response

On Sunday April 13th, a general strike was called by Limerick’s United Trades & Labour Council, to which Byrne had been a delegate.  Running the strike was delegated to a committee that described itself as a “soviet” as of April 14th.

  • The committee had the example of the Dublin general strike of 1913 and the National Strike of 1918
  • The “soviet” (meaning a self-governing committee) had become a popular term after 1917 from the workers’ uprising
  • In modern day Irish politics, Limerick is the only place where a ‘communist’ TD has been elected

The general strike was extended to a boycott of the troops.  A special strike committee was set up to print their own money, control food prices and publish newspapers.  The businesses of the city accepted the strike banknotes for the duration of the strike, therefore it was used as currency – albeit an illegitimate one on the eyes of the British Government.

Members of the 1919 Limerick Soviet

Members of the 1919 Limerick Soviet Back row: T McDonnell, J Carr, J Coffey, M Ryan, M Bennis, D O’Reilly, M Gabbett. Fourth row: F Whelan, M Daly, T Bourke, J Roberts, J McQuaine. Third row: P O’Sullivan, W O’Brien, G Dunne, P Hehir, J Flynn, B Rea, L Kelliher, D O’Loughlin, J Hogan, C Johnson, M Reddan, J O’Keeffe. Seated: D Griffin, R P O’Connor, J Casey, J Cronin, A Walsh, J O’Connor, P Dowling. Front: J Buckner, C Carey, M Browne, J Leahy

After two weeks the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Limerick, Alphonsus O’Mara, and the RC Bishop of Limerick Denis Hallinan called for the strike to end, and the Strike Committee issued a proclamation on April 27th 1919, stating that the strike was over.

The Limerick Soviet

The Limerick Soviet ran the city for the period, printed its own money and organised the supply of food.

In his book (Forgotten Revolution: Limerick Soviet 1919) Liam Cahill postulates :-

  • “The soviet attitude to private property was essentially pragmatic. So long as shopkeepers were willing to act under the soviet dictates, there was no practical reason to commandeer their premises.”
  • “In the end the soviet was basically an emotional and spontaneous protest on essentially nationalist and humanitarian grounds, rather than anything based on socialist or even trade union aims.”

Key events

  • The Soviet Food Committee was divided into two sections – one to receive food and the other to distribute it
    • Four city councillors controlled the collection and distribution of food via 4 depots established by the Soviet.
    • Clare farmers sent potatoes, milk, eggs, butter, tea, sugar and home made bread into the depots
    • These basic food commodities were sold at prices considerably below the market value
    • Pig and cattle fairs were seriously disrupted by the Strike
1919 Bruree Soviet Mills - we make bread, not profits

1919 Bruree Soviet Mills – we make bread, not profits (Limerick General Strike 1919)

  • 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
  • Transport and communications were important enough to merit the setting up of a permits committee under the charge of another four city councillors (Soviet Sub-Committee) within the city, whereas the British Army controlled those going in – again via a system of individually signed travel permits.  The general strike and the SMA did not last long enough for this system to come under pressure, so it seems to have worked well and without too much complaint.
  • The next problem facing the Strike Committee was money
    • While the majority of trade unions were prepared to pay their members strike pay for the duration of the Soviet, the powerful and influential National Union of Railwaymen was not.
    • Although outside food supplies were readily forthcoming and food donations were stockpiled in other cities, little money had been received and the strikers could not pay for the fresh food coming in from Co Clare or the bread baked in Limerick
    • The Soviet had two choices – commandeer the food (and lose the support of the merchants and farmers), or to print its own currency as a ‘stop gap’ measure
    • They chose the latter and printed their own banknotes in denominations of one, five and ten shillings – a pragmatic, more so than ideological ‘socialist’ response to a shortage of cash in a post-capitalist society

Tom Johnson, Treasurer of the Trade Union Congress, who had been sent by the Executive to liaise with the Limerick strikers, said “the notes issue was ‘sound finance’ and was a sign the strike could be prolonged” whereas The Irish Times  saw the strike currency more as ‘a type of promissory note or food voucher’ and therefore as a sign of growing financial weakness …

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 and they varied in colour according to their face value.
  • A subcommittee of the propaganda committee was responsible for the printing and issuing of the currency

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, therefore the notes proved to be sound as a currency.  The security for the notes, it was said, would be provided by the stocks of food donated from Cork, Clare and other counties.

1919 Limerick Soviet 5/- banknote (black & green on blued paper)

1919 Limerick Soviet 5/- banknote (black & green on blued paper)

1919 Limerick Soviet 10/- banknote (black & red on cream paper)

1919 Limerick Soviet 10/- banknote (black & red on cream paper)

1919 Limerick Soviet 10/- banknote (black & red on orange paper)

1919 Limerick Soviet 10/- banknote (black & red on orange paper)

There are five Types of Limerick Soviet notes, as follows:

  • A1. Signatures John Cronin, Chairman; James Casey, Treasurer. Notes Stamped and Numbered.
    • This is the standard issue note.
  • B. Signed as the signatories but by persons other than the signatories. Notes Stamped and Numbered.
    • This is likely a ‘souvenir’ note.
  • C. Signed as the signatories but by persons other than the signatories. Notes Stamped but not numbered.
    • This is likely a ‘souvenir’ note.
  • D. Numbered and Stamped, but not signed.
    • Possibly un-issued notes awaiting signatures which were kept as souvenirs after the end of the note issue.
  • E. Signed backwards by a single person as James Casey, Chairman; John Cronin, Treasurer.
    • Numbered and Stamped. Possibly another souvenir, created by someone ‘signing up’ a Type D note.

Later Forgeries

There has been a subsequent 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.

1919 Limerick Soviet, John Cronin

Limerick Soviet Leader, John Cronin

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.

The end of the General Strike

The General Strike in Limerick was doomed to failure for several reasons – the most important being the unlikelihood of being able to ‘elevate it’ into a country-wide ‘national’ strike with the support of the other trade unions.

  • The National Union of Railwaymen could not be relied upon for support and to paralyse transport nationally
  • The Unionist work forces of Ulster would, undoubtedly, actively oppose it

More importantly,

  • From their meetings in Dublin, they already knew they could not count on the support of the Dáil, or Sinn Féin
  • The Catholic Church and the Limerick Chamber of Commerce were speaking out against a prolonged strike
  • Even local merchants with Sinn Féin sympathies were, by now, also speaking out against the strike

A National Trades Union Congress was called for Limerick and the speeches were made at the end of each day’s discussions and negotiations from the steps of the Mechanics Institute.  Brig-Gen. Griffen played a clever “wait and see” game – being anxious not to be seen to be heavy handed and create a new set of martyrs.  Timing was crucial.  It was Easter.  The Easter Rising in Dublin and its aftermath (exactly 3 years beforehand) was in everyone’s mind.

  • The General was shrewd enough not to try to break the strike by military intervention.
  • That might have provided further martyrs and justification for stronger action on the other side.
  • He did not try to prevent the pickets from closing down businesses.
  • Instead, Griffin chose to wait for the realisation to dawn that the strike either had to escalate or be ended.
  • In this, he proved ultimately to have a number of unlikely and unexpected allies
    • the national leadership of Sinn Féin
    • the RC Bishop of Limerick and Catholic clergy
    • the Sinn Féin Mayor of Limerick and the local Sinn Féin leadership
    • the leadership of the Irish Labour Party
    • and the Trade Union Congress

The initial strength of the strikers, and the early support of Sinn Féin was enough to prevent a violent employers’ response (as per Dublin and Belfast in 1913) and this was an important factor in maintaining the peace.  The Limerick Soviet was, it seems, allowed to quietly go about its business for the first week and then, when it became clear that a national strike was not going to happen, they were allowed the time to quietly climb down from the precipice of socialist revolution.

  • In achieving a peaceful end to the strike, the General maintained the Government’s status and the Army’s morale, by dealing only with the employers, the Mayor and the Bishop.
  • In that way, he denied any recognition to the strike leaders, something the employers probably welcomed because of its long term beneficial side effects for them.

The Trade Union Congress leader was able to

  • congratulate the workers on their administrative and organisational abilities
  • he called for financial assistance to meet the losses already incurred and to continue the fight
  • all the members of the Congress Executive, except one, then left Limerick

The strike was now back in the hands of the local Strike Committee.

  • The various subcommittees remained at work, and concentrated on helping people who needed money or food.
  • Late on Sunday night, April 27th 1919, the Strike Committee issued a proclamation:

“Whereas for the past fortnight the workers of Limerick have entered an emphatic and dignified protest against military tyranny, and have loyally obeyed the orders of the Strike Committee, we, at a special meeting assembled, after carefully considering the circumstances, have decided to call upon the workers to resume work on Monday morning. We take this opportunity of returning our thanks to every class of the community for the help tendered during the period of the strike.”

The Limerick Soviet had ended as suddenly as it began, exactly fourteen days previously.

From a notophilia viewpoint, the Limerick Soviet was a fascinating exercise in introducing a new currency, backed up by donations of food supplies and the ‘hard cash’ held Trades Unions funds.  Economists will argue that it would not have lasted much longer than it did, but it did give us the ‘rarest’ promissory notes ever to be issued in Ireland.  Given that most of the banks were still issuing their own promissory notes, it wasn’t too far from the financial reality of its time.

  • Between 1915 and 1919 the price of silver doubled and, the bullion value of 2 silver crowns was almost that of a gold sovereign.  From 1920, all British silver coins contained 50% silver – as opposed to 92.5% silver (Sterling) beforehand.
  • The creation of a fixed rate global currency exchange mechanism via ‘the gold standard’ only deepened the post-WW1 recession and was a major factor in the Great Depression
  • The Irish banks, who all had their headquarters in London, found that Irish independence less than three years after the Limerick Soviet, was a game-changer for them and their promissory notes were, in theory, just as whimsical as those of the Limerick Soviet.

Links to other interesting information about the Limerick Soviet

Forgotten Revolution: The Limerick Soviet 1919 (Liam Cahill) full .pdf script

The Story of the Limerick Soviet, April 1919 (Dr O’Connor Lysaght)


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