First IRA volunteer to be killed in the War of Independence remembered

Robert Byrnes was shot dead while trying to escape from a military hospital

The first IRA volunteer to be killed in the War of Independence is being remembered on Saturday in his hometown on the 100th anniversary of his death.

Robert Byrnes, a post office worker from Meelick, Co Limerick, was shot dead on April 6th, 1919 while trying to escape from hospital where he was under armed guard.

Byrnes (28) was arrested and jailed in January 1919 after guns and ammunition were found in his family home in Limerick city. A month later he and fellow Republican prisoners went on hunger strike because they were denied political status.

Byrnes's health deteriorated quickly and he was transferred to the hospital attached to the Union Workhouse on Shelbourne Road in Limerick.


On April 6th, 1919 a party of IRA volunteers went to rescue him. In the ensuing gun battle Byrnes was shot and fatally wounded. He died that evening in a safe house.

Byrnes ’s death is most famous today for being the catalyst which led to the Limerick Soviet - a two week general strike in the city against British rule. The Limerick Soviet was in response to the British authorities who made Limerick a special military area which severely restricted movement in and out of the city.

Saturday’s commemoration will take place at the Robert Byrnes monument at Knockalisheen, Meelick at 2pm exactly a century after he died.

The oration is being delivered by local historian and author Dr Pádraig Óg Ó Rúairc. The ceremonies will include the laying of a wreath at the monument, a moment’s silence in memory of all those who died for Irish freedom and a reading of the 1916 Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil Éireann.

Limerick Soviet

The Limerick Soviet centenary will be marked by a large scale theatrical production which will take place at the site of the old Cleeves' Condensed Milk and Butter Company.

It was taken over by the Golden Vale company as a depot, but has not been used for 20 years.

The Limerick Soviet started on April 12th 1919 when workers in the factory voted to go on strike. This was followed on the following day by a general strike across the city called by the United Trades and Labour Council.

The strike committee organised food and fuel supplies, printed money and published its own newspaper called The Worker’s Bulletin for two weeks.

The Limerick Soviet attracted international attention coincidentally because many foreign journalists were in the city to report on a planned west to east transatlantic air crossing.

The action will take place in four different sites in the factory and the audience will follow the action around.

Bread Not Profits is written by Limerick playwright Mike Finn and directed by Terry O'Donovan.

Mr Finn said he has been interested in the Limerick Soviet “for the longest time” and one of his teachers at school was a nephew of Robert Byrnes.

A veteran of more than 50 theatre productions, Mr Finn said it will be the biggest production he has been involved in with 11 professional actors, 15 community volunteers and three professional musicians.

The play is funded by the Arts Council and Limerick city council who owns the Cleeves' factory.

“The difficulty of explaining a story like the story of the Limerick Soviet is to find a way into it,” he said. “So we are using some domestic scenes to illustrate it.

“The play will take place the same week 100 years on and in the same place that it originally run. We are very excited about it.”

Bread not Profits will run from April 17th to April 27th every night with the exception of Easter Sunday and Monday.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times