November, 1918: Ireland & the End of the First World War
By Mark Duncan
‘The greatest day in all history’ read the title text on the cinema newsreel and the pictures that followed gave viewers no reason to doubt the veracity of that heady claim. The Pathé footage, silent and flickering, relayed joyous scenes from the streets of Paris, London and New York where thoroughfares and public squares were congested with people welcoming the armistice and an end to more than four years of a war that had delivered misery on scale unprecedented in modern history. Here, amidst the on-screen crush of humanity, viewers could observe smiles on faces and hats and handkerchiefs being waved above heads, as much, one suspects, in relief as celebration.
In Ireland, the public mood was more muted. In his monthly state of the nation submission to the Dublin Castle authorities, the Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary remarked at the close of November 1918 that ‘news of the armistice’ had brought ‘a sense of relief to every class of the community but it evokes no universal enthusiasm’.
It wasn’t that the occasion went unacknowledged or that the country didn’t experience celebrations. It was and it did. In places, indeed, the atmosphere could certainly have been described as one of jubilation. Nowhere more so than in Belfast where bonfires were lit, fireworks exploded, and a steady trade done in the sale of union jack flags. In other parts of the country, too, public buildings were garlanded with union flags and bunting, while Protestant churches sounded their bells.
Irish towns that hosted British army barracks provided obvious focal points for triumphalist displays.
In Maryborough, the Queen’s County town now known as Portlaoise, members of the Shropshire yeomanry, joined by a number of local ex-soldiers and war veterans, marched through the streets singing ‘God save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ before ending the day with a military dance at the town’s courthouse.
In Birr, King’s County, another garrison town, the military paraded in a similar fashion. When they had finished a woman on the street approached the editor of the Midland Tribune, a regional newspaper which did little to disguise its separatist sympathies.
She thrust a union jack in his face.
‘Make the rebel eat it’, the woman provocatively yelled for the benefit of her pavement audience. Then, for rhetorical effect, she acidly added:
‘Where now is Sinn Féin and German gold?’
This was one incident in one town on one day, but there was nothing exceptional about it.
The ending of the war did nothing to unify Ireland in remembrance of the shared sacrifice of its nationalist and unionist servicemen. What it did instead was further expose political divisions that had been deepened by the particular Irish experience of that war.
Just four days after the armistice, Sir Edward Carson was writing to the Belfast Newsletter urging a distinctly Ulster and unionist commemoration of the war. A fund should be opened, he suggested, to support the erection of a monument on the Flanders battlefield to commemorate the ‘heroic deeds’ of the men of the Ulster Division, with ‘any balance’ to be channelled into a ‘UVF Patriotic Fund’.
There was no mention here of making common commemorative cause with those of an Irish nationalist tradition.
But the fault line in Irish political life was no longer just confined to that between orange and green, between traditional unionism and nationalism.
Over the course of the war a new cleavage had opened up within nationalism itself.
The Irish Parliamentary Party, which had given expression to the popular nationalist will for a home rule parliament for over four decades, had been quickly eclipsed by a Sinn Féin party that, in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, had gathered significant support behind a platform of complete independence.
The party, founded by Arthur Griffith and led then by Éamon de Valera, had been helped in its meteoric rise by a British administration whose preference for coercion over conciliation had served to foment nationalist anger and fuel Irish separatist sentiment in the dying months of the war. This took the form of a series of misjudged policies: the threatened introduction of conscription in April 1918, the subsequent arrest and deportation without charge of over seventy members of the Sinn Féin leadership in May, and then, in early July, the efforts by the Irish-based authorities to clampdown on cultural and political organisations and public meetings.
All of these measures stirred up resentments and contributed to the entrenchment of political divisions. To soldiers celebrating the allied victory on the streets of Dublin, the Sinn Féin movement represented a political enemy and in their moment triumph, some, not unlike the woman in Birr, felt moved to exercise their anger and prejudice.
In the days that followed the announcement of the armistice, ill-disciplined soldiers initiated clashes with republicans.
A number of these amounted to pre-meditated and coordinated attacks: in the early evening of 13 November, for instance, over the course of about an hour, soldiers and their civilian supporters rampaged through Dublin’s principal city streets armed with sticks and laid siege to Liberty Hall on the quays, the Mansion House on Dawson Street and the Harcourt Street headquarters of the Sinn Féin party.
They carried union jack flags, sang unionist songs, smashed glass and damaged buildings. On Harcourt Street, the Sinn Féiners met them with bare knuckles and sticks of their own, the disorder only ending when on-duty military arrived on the scene with rifles to restore calm.
This rioting was roundly condemned in the nationalist press and the subsequent decision to confine the soldiers to their barracks was dismissed for being too little, too late. Sinn Féin, meanwhile, issued a statement urging their supporters to ‘remain calm, steady and confident’.
As well they might.
Despite the provocation, or perhaps emboldened by it, the party stood assured and defiant. Harry Boland, soon to be returned as the abstentionist Sinn Féin MP for Roscommon South, had been involved in defending the party’s Harcourt Street offices and he told reporters afterwards that ‘though their premises had been wrecked they had not wrecked Sinn Féin’.
The general election that was called a few days later would bear out Boland’s point. That election, the first in eight years, would see constituency boundaries redrawn and the electorate substantially enlarged. It was a significant democratic moment in which not all of Ireland’s principal political actors were inclined to share. The Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress absented themselves from the electoral contest, announcing before the election date had even been set that they would be standing aside, notwithstanding a prior declaration that it would be in both the interests of Ireland and of labour for the party to contest any coming election.
Standing aside, too, were many of the Irish Party’s outgoing MPs (nearly half of all those in the dissolved Westminster parliament as it turned out), an exodus from political life that left their party unable to defend many of its seats and making a mockery of John Dillon’s pledge that they would ‘fight Sinn Féin with all the resources at their disposal’.
The election in Ireland, held in December, would be fought on the substantive issues of sovereignty and separatism and it was these that dominated the newspaper coverage of the campaign. Yet for many Irish people, the constitutional dimensions of Ireland‘s future autonomy were less pressing than the challenges they confronted in their everyday lives. For a start, the influenza epidemic, which had arrived in Ireland during the summer of 1918, had yet to run its ruinous course.
Beyond the massive toll it exacted on human life – it would ultimately account for more than 20,000 Irish deaths – the fear of the flu had caused major social disruption, closing down schools and cinemas and, in mid-November, after several prominent members of the Wexford senior hurling team were ‘laid up’ owing to its effects, it forced the deferral of their All-Ireland final with Limerick until the following February.
Another effect of the flu pandemic was that it added to the burden of charitable and religious organisations such as the St Vincent de Paul, which, just days before the armistice, had mounted a public appeal in Dublin to help alleviate the suffering and distress of those city-dwellers living in poverty. There was no shortage of these, and the St Vincent de Paul estimated that their number would only increase in the months ahead when troops were demobilised and unemployment rose.
The British government, fearing the same, introduced a temporary scheme of unemployment relief, the ‘Out of Work donation’, which was introduced immediately after the conclusion of the war to benefit not only discharged soldiers and sailors, but also demobilised members of the women’s corps and civilians.
The scheme was embraced enthusiastically in Ireland – too enthusiastically, in fact.
In the opening three days of the scheme in late November 1918, 5,500 people registered for the scheme at one Dublin labour exchange alone. And within months, the abuses of the scheme were said by one government official to have amounted to a ‘grave public scandal’, as large numbers of those availing of the payment were not considered legitimately out of work owing to the cessation of the war.
The abuse was widespread (most counties reported problems with fraud) and encompassed men and women from a wide range of occupational backgrounds. According to one official report on the scheme, the claimants were generally ‘agricultural labourers, idlers in towns, farmer’s sons, and domestic servants’, but there were also ‘concrete cases of farmers, publicans, second hand clothes dealers, students’ and others who were in receipt of the donation.
The popularity of the scheme and the scale of the alleged abuses reflected upon a number of wider realities: the willingness of a large number of claimants to game the system and the government dysfunction in the oversight of that same system – in many cases, labour exchange officials were said to ‘make little or no inquiry’. Equally, and perhaps more significantly, the willingness of so many of those already in employment to seek out the benefit was a measure of the problem of poor wages across vast sectors of the economy, where a job did not necessarily guarantee an escape from poverty.
For the most part, the ‘out of work donation’ scheme was introduced as a short-term measure to manage the adjustment from a war-time to a peace-time society.
The adjustment that took place was piecemeal and, as subsequent events dictated, protracted in nature.
From mid-November onwards, as the election campaign in Ireland gathered momentum, certain measures that had been introduced for the purposes of imperial security during war-time were now held to be surplus to requirements. The dismantling of regulations under the Defence of Realm Act (DORA), introduced in the wake of the outbreak of the war in 1914, was begun and a number American warships, stationed in Queenstown since the summer of 1917, set sail for home. That not all regulations were repealed – they remained in place in Ireland until 1921 - and not all the American ships immediately departed was a reminder nevertheless that armistice did not translate into a seamless return to pre-war ways.
And, of course, for thousands of Irish soldiers who had gone to fight in the war, there would be no return at all. The Irish Times had these very men in mind when, in anticipation of a revival of sports and pastimes that had been either stopped or disrupted for the war’s duration, it remarked on how acutely the absences of those who had died would be felt. ‘For many a day the hunting-field, the cricket-ground, and the golf links must recall memories of good friends and gallant soldiers who will ride a horse and drive a ball no more.’
Mark Duncan is a Director of Century Ireland