Ireland: August 1914
By Mark Duncan
This piece was written for radio and was broadcast as part of a special RTE Radio programme to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The programme ‘Ireland’s Experience: Episode 1, the Call to Arms’, presented by Myles Dungan and produced by Yetti Redmond, can be accessed in full here. The audio version of this article can be accessed below.
Wars change societies, but seldom can an outbreak of hostilities have had such a pacifying effect.
Within weeks of Ireland becoming embroiled in what would become the most horrific of European conflicts, confidential reports poured into Dublin Castle which told of a country utterly transformed - which told of cooled tensions and abating bitterness.
Remarkably, the war appeared to have done what all manner of prior political manoeuvring, up to and including a summit of key party leaders at Buckingham Palace, had singularly failed to do.
It had averted the threat of civil strife in Ireland.
In Belfast city, the crucible of Ulster resistance to Home Rule, the Police observed how, following the outbreak of fighting in Europe, animosities between local nationalists and unionists had largely subsided.
Likewise, in Tyrone - another potential flashpoint - war abroad was credited with working a ‘revolution’ in party feeling as antagonism towards Germany forged an unlikely unity between opposing Volunteer forces. In a scene that would have been unimaginable just a few weeks previously, Ulster Volunteers and National Volunteers joined with their musical bands in escorting the troops off to the western front.
However, it wasn’t only in troubled Ulster that war, initially at least, delivered a semblance of calm. In the west of Ireland, there was a lull in rural agitation with parts of Galway in particular achieving a ‘peaceable state’ that had not been seen in years.
But if the country appeared somewhat soothed, it was far from quiet. Irish society was still in a state of flux. The war-time mobilisation of Irish-garrisoned British troops led to crowded streets and packed trains in the towns where barracks were situated and congestion around the major ports of exit. An employee at the Dublin Port and Docks Board Power Station recalled working almost continuously during the first week of the war as troops started arriving from all parts of the country - by train, on horse and on foot. One of those departing soldiers, Walter Denny, told of Dubliners singing and cheering the troops on the quayside and presenting them with parting gifts of buns, cigarettes and chocolates.
Despite such scenes, there was neither a stampede to war nor an uncritical acceptance of an Irish contribution towards it.
On August 8th, the very day the British Government introduced the Defence of the Realm Act, granting it sweeping restrictive powers, the labour leader James Connolly used the pages of the Irish Worker newspaper to warn of the ‘incalculable’ evil the war would inflict on Ireland. Connolly railed against the prospect of Europe’s working class being slaughtered for the ‘benefit of kings and financiers’ and voiced a fear that Irish agriculture would end up servicing a war economy - to the detriment of many vulnerable urban dwellers. ‘Remember’, he wrote, ‘the Irish farmer like all other farmers will benefit by the high prices of the war, but these high prices will mean starvation to the labourers in the towns.’
Concerns about unscrupulous profiteering were widespread. James Connolly’s analysis, in part, found an echo in newspaper editorials and in speeches delivered from Church pulpits and within Council chambers. And with good reason: in the days after war broke out, the cost of coal soared and prices for such essential foodstuffs as meat, milk, butter and bread spiked. In Clonmel, the prospect of children going hungry was enough to compel a parish priest to rebuke the local merchants and caution them against trying to make ‘immense profits out of a crisis.’
Of course, it wasn’t only household budgets that were being squeezed. There was a narrowing, too, in the opportunities for social, recreational and leisure pursuits. Sport was just one area to suffer. It was summer after all and the beginning of war coincided with the busiest period in the Irish sporting calendar. In many parts of the country, however, events were immediately cancelled and fixtures abandoned. The Royal Ulster and Royal North of Ireland Yacht Clubs promptly called a halt to their season and the Horse Show was called off as the military authorities seized control of the RDS grounds. The Golfing Union of Ireland adopted a similar approach, opting to cancel the Irish Open Amateur Championship that had been fixed for Portrush. According to one golf writer, the reasons for the cancellation were ‘so obvious as to require no comment.’ Indeed, it was for those very same reasons that the women of Carrickmines Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club took to knitting socks and helmets for the soldiers on active service.
Not all sports and not all clubs and societies felt it appropriate to call a halt to their activities. For some, it was business and play as usual. Horse racing continued almost as a point of principle and race meetings in the Phoenix Park and Leopardstown attracted large and enthusiastic crowds.
However, the good weather that helped swell the crowds at these events was not enjoyed throughout the month. In mid-August, as German troops laid siege to Belgium, an extraordinary thunderstorm broke over Ireland, bringing with it torrential rain and leaving a trail of wreckage in its wake. In Crossmolina, Co. Mayo, horses and cattle were killed instantly by lightning strikes and railway services from nearby Sligo were disrupted by damage to electrical apparatus.
In Kildare, the lightning was reported to have been blinding in its intensity, with ‘vivid flashes dazzling the eyes and lighting up the streets and roadways.’ Hay stacks in Kilcock were set alight and destroyed, while in Carnalway, near Newbridge, a labourer’s cottage was split in two.
Beneath these ferocious skies, troops from the Curragh Camp were making their way to Dublin to embark for the Continent. Soaked from the rain and in great discomfort, they took shelter in a village hall in Kill. Here, they found welcome, if temporary, reprieve.
For the storm they had escaped was like nothing to the one they were walking towards.