Ireland’s Opportunity? The First World War & 1916
by Mark Duncan
The outbreak of the First World War transformed Irish political circumstances and provides the vital backdrop against which the planning and play-out of the 1916 Rising must be understood. Within weeks of Britain declaring war on Germany and John Redmond’s subsequent call for Irishmen to join the ranks of the British army and ‘go wherever the firing line extends’, a meeting – attended by all seven future signatories of the 1916 Proclamation – was held at the Gaelic League offices in Dublin at which it was agreed to hold an insurrection at some point before the conclusion of the war. In doing so, the rebel conspirators were merely reviving an established Fenian creed that ‘England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity’.
Yet for many Irish people, including ardent nationalists, England’s travails were not an occasion for plotting rebellion; rather they were an opportunity for demonstrating solidarity and support. So much so, indeed, that the outbreak of war brought about an immediate cooling in local political temperatures that had been overheating as the Home Rule crisis, intensifying since the creation of two armed militias in 1913, looked set to erupt into civil war. By late July 1914, political efforts to resolve nationalist and unionist differences over the substance and shape of an Irish home rule settlement appeared exhausted when a conference of political leaders at Buckingham Palace ended without resolution. At the same time, a major landing of arms and ammunition for the Irish Volunteers at Howth ended with bloodshed and death on Dublin’s Bachelor’s Walk, an outcome that inflamed Irish nationalists, not least for the contrast it struck with the acquiescent official response to unionist gun running at Larne the same year.
Within weeks, the outbreak of European war had averted the threat of Irish civil war. Nationalists and unionists, for the most part, united in their support of the British war effort, and the Home Rule question was shelved, if not resolved; the Liberal British Government of Herbert Asquith placed Home Rule on the Statute Book, but suspended its implementation for the duration of the war and pending the agreement with the Ulster Unionists. In throwing the weight of his Irish Parliamentary Party and the Irish Volunteer movement (established in November 1913 to rival the Ulster Volunteer Force and pressure the case for Home Rule) behind the British war effort, John Redmond undoubtedly spoke for the mainstream of Irish nationalist sentiment. His decision split the Irish Volunteers, but the vast majority – approximately 90 per cent of the 180,000-strong movement – supported Redmond, many of them defecting to the rival National Volunteers that he went on to establish after being expelled from the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers for his war stance. What was left of the Irish Volunteers was very much a committed core, men who, in the words of those who remained, might be relied upon to ‘participate in an insurrection when the right moment was revealed'. Led by Professor Eoin MacNeill of UCD and encompassing key members of the separatist revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett, Éamonn Ceannt, Seán Mac Diarmada, Bulmer Hobson), the Irish Volunteers emerged from the September 1914 split both smaller in number and with a greater clarity of purpose. And it was from the ranks of these Volunteers that the 1916 rebels would be principally drawn.
War & the weakening of the Irish Parliamentary Party
For John Redmond, the decision to commit to the war was both ideological and pragmatic. No anti-imperialist, he had always maintained, as historian Fearghal McGarry has pointed out, that an Ireland under Home Rule would prove ‘one of the strongest bulwarks of Empire’. But Redmond believed too in the justness of the war, in the idea of the defence of small nations and the necessity of support for catholic Belgium, then subject to invasion by a German army whose committal of atrocities, imagined and real, were widely, and emotively, reported in Irish newspapers. Beyond all that, Redmond also saw in the war an opportunity to reconcile Ireland’s two political traditions, hoping that the experience of fighting together for a common cause would result in a greater post-war harmony and a wider acceptance of the implementation of Irish Home Rule.
Early expectations of war would jar with the actuality of the Irish experience, however. The war delivered neither harmony nor a quick resolution. The short war never materialised and the more protracted it became the more that it fed a growing sense of Irish disillusionment. Despite the boom it delivered to Irish farmers, the unrelenting attritional warfare, returning wounded soldiers, mounting fatalities and rising fears of conscription – fuelled by a highly active mosquito press – contributed to a slowing of Irish recruitment from early 1915. Indeed, by July of that year, the Inspector General for Ireland, in his monthly report for the Dublin Castle administration, felt compelled to remark that ‘the class of voluntary recruits is nearly exhausted’. By then, the war had spread from Europe to the Dardanelles, where, on the Gallipoli Peninsula, Winston Churchill hoped to break the stalemate of the western front by forcing Germany to divide their forces in support of Turkey. The Gallipoli campaign was a disaster. It ended in defeat, massive loss of life and a humiliating retreat for the allies. Over 4,000 Irish soldiers were killed in the months between the initial allied landings of April 1915 and the completion of their evacuation in January 1916. Among these were members of the 10th (Irish) Division, made up not of established serving soldiers, but recruits who had joined up after the war began and in response to calls made by the Secretary of War, Lord Kitchener. When the Division sustained heavy losses in a doomed offensive at Suvla Bay, the realities of war hit home for many Irish families and, building on an already growing weariness, it fuelled nationalist criticism in the wider conduct of the war. As Irish writer, Katharine Tynan, who had friends killed with the 10th Division at Suvla, later put it: ‘For the first time came bitterness, for we felt that their lives had been thrown away and that their heroism had gone unrecognised.’
All the while, the influence of John Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party was on the wane. Their difficulties were almost all war-induced. It didn’t help that the British War Office appeared to confer preferential treatment on the UVF over National Volunteers, the former being incorporated into the 36th (Ulster) Division in a way that appeared to preserve their identity and political coherence – the National Volunteers, for all Redmond’s urgings, were afforded no such facility. Compounding Redmond’s difficulties was the fact that his party had been deprived of its very raison d’etre by the decisions taken in the first few weeks of the war; the long-awaited Home Rule Bill had finally been enacted, but there was nothing to show for it. It remained unimplemented. With the deferral of Home Rule with the promise of a future accommodation for Ulster, constitutionalism passed, in the words of historian Charles Townsend, ‘into a kind of suspended animation’, which, after all the heightened expectation of delivery, invited ridicule from the party’s opponents. Indeed, the only function left to the Irish Parliamentary Party was to act in the increasingly unpopular role of recruiting sergeant to the British army.
Perhaps nothing underscored the increased marginalisation of John Redmond more than the formation of coalition government in May 1915, which brought to an end a parliamentary arrangement whereby his Irish Party had been required to prop up the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith. In keeping with his party’s traditional policy Redmond declined a cabinet post in the revamped wartime administration, a decision that in retrospect appeared to be a mistake, particularly as the Ulster Unionist leader Edward Carson took up the position of Attorney General. Irish nationalists viewed Carson’s inclusion with unease, believing it put them at a disadvantage to unionism and jeopardised the prospects for Home Rule’s eventual implementation. Indeed, in his evidence to the Royal Commission on the Irish rebellion, the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Augustine Birrell, offered the view that the appointment of the coalition cabinet 'seemed to mark the end of Home Rule, and strengthen the Sinn Féiners enormously all over the country'.
War & ‘Ireland’s Opportunity’
For advanced nationalists, then, the war had, by 1915, contributed to the weakening of their political opponents and provided them with an environment in which to build political support by tapping into, and exploiting, anti-recruitment sentiment. This they steadily did and the Irish Volunteers improved their organisation and increased their numbers throughout that year, albeit from a small base. But the circumstances of war also threw up other opportunities, most obviously the prospect of enlisting German assistance in striking a blow at British power in Ireland. To that end, aided by the Clan na Gael organisation of John Devoy in New York, Sir Roger Casement - a former British consul, human rights champion and Irish nationalist sympathiser - travelled to Germany in October 1914. Casement aimed to win German government support for the Irish independence movement; to recruit an Irish brigade from German-held Irish prisoners of war to support a rebellion; to acquire arms and German officer support to progress that rebellion. The Casement mission was, for the most part, a failure: when the Irish brigade mustered only a few Irish POWs, the idea was abandoned; and when Casement learned of the limited amount of German arms on offer, he set himself against the proposed insurrection. It went ahead all the same, though the interception of German arms that were carried on board the Aud in April 1916 scuppered any prospect of a Rising on a grand scale and precipitating the series of orders and counter-orders that ensured the insurrection was conducted on a much smaller scale than originally envisaged.
The First World War & the British Response to the Rising
The very fact of German assistance, however limited and ineffectual, was confirmed in the words of the 1916 Proclamation which made reference to the rebels ‘gallant allies in Europe’; it was reflected, too, in the severity of the treatment of the Rising’s leaders, fifteen of whom were executed after being charged with ‘taking part in an armed rebellion and in the waging of war against His Majesty, the King’. Of course, the executions of the leaders and the arrest and internment of thousands of others would gradually help sway public sympathy towards the rebels and against the British government. Yet, on 11 May 1916, in the course of a House of Commons debate in which the behaviour of the British military authorities were fiercely denounced, one Irish Party MP, Tim Healy, called for balance and an understanding of the context in which the executions took place. While regretting those very executions, Healy added: ‘I cannot forget the fact of the rebellion, the fact that that rebellion broke out at a moment when it was evidently done in concert with Germany, and the fact also that there came a descent upon the shores of this country by way of invasion at the same time as this uprising in Ireland.’
For all that the Easter Rising of 1916 can be seen as being in keeping with the Fenian insurrectionary tradition of the 19th century, what really distinguishes it is the backdrop against which it was waged. The First World War is crucial to understanding of the rebellion – to its planning and prosecution and to the manner of its suppression.