“Where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows”

I just posted about the centenary of the Soloheadbeg ambush. This event is commonly considered to mark the outset of the War of Independence, a rebellion which ultimately did lead to an independent Irish state (for most of the island of Ireland)

There is a political saying that “where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows.” Soloheadbeg didn’t randomly happen in Tipperary – the country would be the hotbed of the early stage of the conflict   and indeed the activities of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade in rendering South Tipperary ungovernable provided a blueprint for insurgency movements to this day (I recall someone observing that national liberation movements across the world paid close attention to 1919-21 in Ireland, and much less attention to 1922-3)

Tipperary had already seen the 1848 Rebellion, less gloriously referred to as the Battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Patch. It was again a hotbed of Fenianism It also saw the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association, whose influence on Irish life is hard to quantify.

Tipperary is a predominantly rural county, but with urban centres which would have been more industrialised than most Irish towns. Left wing politics had a receptive audience.  In April 1922 a “soviet” was set up in Clonmel:

With the ending of the war, came the inevitable economic depression, with a dramatic fall in exports. This coincided with our own struggles for independence. The firm [Condensed Milk Company of Ireland] said it was losing money and proposed a reduction in wages. The workers said the company had made “a million” during the war. The stand-off led to a strike, which, in the climate of the time, was a special sort of strike which has become known as The Clonmel Soviet.

The Russian Revolution had cast long shadows over the Europe of the early decades of the 20th century. In many countries so-called soviets were established by workers taking over industries from “capitalist owners,” with the objective of operating them for the benefit of the workers, with all the profits accruing to themselves. That was the theory.

The Clonmel soviet was established in the last week of April 1922, when the workers demanded from the management the “keys,” and then hoisted a red flag on the factory building. The popular belief was (there is no written evidence) that this was done at “the point of a gun.”

It was not the most propitious time for ideological experimentation. The coinciding Civil War, with consequent damaged bridges, disrupted railways, roads and postal services, left Clonmel isolated. For the first time since the Famine, soup kitchens were set up in the town. In the initial few weeks there had been some limited public sympathy for the strikers or sovieters, but this quickly evaporated, especially when elements of anarchy took over and butter was walked into pavements and milk was overturned and poured down Sarsfield Street from a site opposite the Main Guard. Clonmel had enough!

The far left retained a hold in Tipperary. Séamus Healy of the Workers and Unemployed Action Group was first elected in a by election in 2000.  This was some years before the 2011 election saw quite a few far left candidates elected.

Tipperary also has been represented in the Dail by Michael Lowry since 1987, for the first decade for Fine Gael and from 1997 as an Independent. Lowry is a pariah in national politics, but has been re-elected handsomely since, even when the Tipperary constituencies were merged. Again, some years before this became a national trend, Tipperary therefore saw the emergence of the “gene pool” independent; a candidate originally linked with one of other of the major parties and retaining a constituency organisation and a local commitment. As with the Healy-Raes,  metropolitan hand-wringing and sneering doesn’t do local popularity any harm, though I would feel this is secondary to a local responsiveness and a perception (real or otherwise) that They Can Get Things Done. (incidentally I do not think localism is only a rural phenomenon – Shane Ross in Dublin South evidently can operate the parish pump as enthusiastically as anyone)

 

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