ET, Baile Átha Cliath
Across Europe the fires of revolution burned bright. From the battlefields of the Russian Civil War to the streets of Berlin, from Italian factories to Irish countryside, civil disorder and outright rebellion were the order of the day. In the aftermath of the Great War the world was changing, and in 1919, as the Irish War of Independence began, some workers saw the chance to demand change.
Born in 1893, Peader O’Donnell, a teacher and IGTWU organiser before the war, was a life-long socialist. An IRA commander in Ulster during the War of Independence, he was imprisoned by the Free State for his part in the Battle of Dublin, was elected as a Sinn Féin TD after the Civil War, and fought for the Spanish Republic against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Before all of this however, just as the War of Independence began in 1919, O’Donnell lead the occupation of the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum by its staff.
Before the declaration of the Soviet, workers in the asylum had long, 93-hour weeks, poor pay, few days off, and were not even allowed leave the premises between shifts. The hospital itself was segregated between Catholic and Protestant patients and was an iteration of the Victorian concept of the asylum as containing rather than rehabilitating. It was an epitome of many of the divisions and inequalities prevalent in Irish society at the time, with female workers excluded from negotiations on rates of pay.
O’Donnell and the workers barricaded themselves inside the premises, aided by the inmates themselves, and raised the red flag over the asylum to fight for better working conditions.
Under siege by the RUC, they began negotiations with the British authorities. Despite being offered a pay rise, the staff held firm as it did not include equal pay for male and female staff, and continued their occupation, despite O’Donnell having to fire the matron for insubordination and imprison a man for “defeatism”.
The strike was a success, the settlement gave the workers a 48-hour week, increased pay for all staff, and allowed permission for married workers to go home between shifts. Even though the issue had been resolved, it was still brought before the House of Commons, however the chief secretary simply informed the parliament that the strike had ended.
Peader O’Donnell and the Irish Soviets may be largely forgotten outside of socialist circles today, overshadowed by the War of Independence and the Civil War, but the Monaghan Soviet and the ones that followed are an important part of Ireland’s working class history, and a timely reminder of what workers can achieve when they organise themselves for the betterment of society.