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Robert Byrnes Commemoration, Limerick City, Monday 7th May 2012 Oration by Cllr.

Maurice Quinlivan

I very much appreciate the honour of being asked to speak here today. I have a family connection with the events that surrounded the death of Bobby Byrnes and it was a story I was told many times. My great-grand uncle Dominic Kennedy was the IRA Volunteer who drove the carraige in the aborted rescue of Bobby Byrnes from the then Limerick Union. I'd like to remember at this time his daughter Mary form nearby Garryowen who died in February of this year. The life and death of Robert Byrnes, trade unionist and Republican, is an inextricable part of the story of the great Limerick General Strike of April 1919 that became known to the world and history as the Limerick Soviet. And, I think, it is fitting that we should gather on an occasion such as this when once again workers here in Limerick are engaged in struggle for their rights at Irish Cement in Mungret. I know that you will all join with me in extending solidarity greetings to them and wishing them well in their fight. Of course, it is appropriate that we should also acknowledge with some pride and satisfaction the workers at La Senza, Game Store, Vita Cortex, Lagan Bricks and others who have refused to be cast aside and treated as unwanted baggage by their rich and powerful employers. At a time when the hard won gains of working people are being assailed from all quarters such courageous struggles by ordinary men and women are inspirations to us all in these uncertain times.

The story of Robert Byrnes is well known. How as a republican trade unionist he lost his job in the Limerick GPO; his arrest at the time on what many regarded as trumped up charges; his hunger strike in Limerick Prison and the tragic consequences of his rescue by the IRA from the Limerick Union Infirmary (now St. Camillus Hospital on Shelbourne Road). Also well known was the response of the British authorities to the massive and defiant attendance at his funeral. Their attempt to impose martial law in Limerick was met by the workers of Limerick with a with a general strike, led by the Limerick Trades and Labour Council, that is surely one the most glorious moments in the history of the Irish labour movement. Robert Byrnes, in his life, work and tragic death, was a vivid embodiment of the assertion of James Connolly that the cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland and the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour; they are but two sides of the same coin. Clearly, you cannot view the events of the Limerick Soviet in 1919 from the wider national struggle of the period. There were during that period many other heroic efforts on the part of workers in pursuance of the struggle for independence, such as the refusal of many railway workers to transport British forces and strikes in support of Republican prisoners. However, it is also true that inherent tensions existed between the ideals and aspirations for social and economic progress on the part of organized labour and the political aims of the Republican Movement, perhaps best summed up by De Valeras policy of Labour must wait. It is one of the great tragedies of Irish history that the noble ideals of the 1916 Proclamation and the labour-inspired Democatic Programme of the First Dail were forced to give way, as Connolly predicted, to a carnival of reaction and that the conclusion to that phase of the national struggle was the creation of a deeply conservative and regressive partitioned

Ireland as Connolly foretold. It goes without saying that, in my view, the contemporary Republican Movement, drawing on its own more recent experience of struggle, adopts a much more progressive stance and sees itself as playing an important role alongside the organized labour movement in the struggle for a new and better Ireland. Page 2

The story of Robert Byrnes and the Limerick Soviet is one in which working people in Limerick should take immense pride. That the story continues to be told today is due in huge part to a small band of writers and activists who refused to allow it to be relegated to a footnote in more conventional histories. Particularly noteworthy in this regarded is the work of Liam Cahill The Forgotten Revolution. But also worthy of mention are the writings of Jim Kemmy, Frank Prendergast, Raynor Lysaght, Emmet Larkin and others, along with the efforts of the Limerick Council of Trade Unions, Michael McNamara and the board of the Mechanics Institute and the Limerick Soviet Commemoration Committee. The creation of the Robert Byrnes Memorial Park on Clancy Strand, during the mayoralty of my council colleague John Gilligan, is to be particularly commended. I would also like to take this opportunity to call on Limerick City Council to replace the Limerick Soviet commemorative plaque on Thomond Bridge, which was erected in 1999 in memory of a famous confrontation at that location between the British military and the citizens of Limerick during the general strike. This plaque, which was unveiled by then Mayor Joe Harrington, was removed in the course of renovation works on the bridge and seems to have been carelessly lost. Of course, it is arguable that this would

not have happened had the plaque been marking an event more in keeping with the establishments view of history. Nevertheless, such blatant disrespect should not be tolerated and I intend to continue to pursue this matter with the council.

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The Limerick Soviet should not simply be seen as an interesting episode in local and labour history. Rather, the unity, strength and defiance, which were hallmarks of the momentous events in Limerick in the spring of 1919, should inspire us again in our own time when such qualities are sorely needed as the workers movement again faces huge challenges. Not only in Ireland but all across Europe and the world, there is a conscious effort on the part of big business and high finance enthusiastically supported by the political right to roll back the gains of the labour movement in the areas of wages, working conditions, social protection and political strength. Mass unemployment, lower incomes and increasing poverty, and attacks on public services are part and parcel of savage austerity policies being pursued with the aim of making working people carry the burden for a crisis caused by the inherent greed and incompetence of a rampant and uncontrolled capitalism. The attitudes and world outlook that drove Robert Byrnes from his job and starved the workers and their families of Dublin in 1913 are alive and well in the Ireland of today.

However, the spirit of Robert Byrnes, of the Limerick Soviet, of Connolly and Larkin the spirit of resistance to exploitation and injustice is also alive here even if a bit bloody and bruised. This can be clearly seen in the struggles today in Irish Cement and elsewhere, in the resistance to the household tax and in a refusal by many working people to meekly accept the policies of austerity and attacks on their livelihoods and rights. In remembering the greatness of past struggles, let us draw from them pride, strength and inspiration as we face the struggles of our own time. GRMA _________________________________________________