The First World War and the Irish Revolution in Dublin – linked ‘Great Wars’
By Richard S. Grayson
That Soloheadbeg and Dáil Éireann’s first meeting at the Mansion House took place on the same day, 21 January 1919, symbolised the fact that the coming revolution would have military and political dimensions. It is widely recognised that the politics of this new phase of the revolution drew on the earlier politics of 1916 with the Dáil’s sense of legitimacy resting heavily on the fact that the leaders of 1916 had already proclaimed a republic. Meanwhile, the Irish Republican Army of 1919 was largely the Irish Volunteers under a different name. Yet what of the wider political and military context of the First World War?
Despite there being recognition that the leaders of 1916 were spurred to action by the context of the war, there is a tendency in historical writing to see the war and the revolution as separate conflicts which might have happened at the same time but were linked only on limited occasions. The approach I have taken in my recent book, Dublin’s Great Wars, offers an alternative, seeing Dublin’s experience of both as a series of linked ‘great wars’.
The starting point for that approach is that the motivations of those fighting in the conflicts did not simply arise from their attitudes to the First World War or to the Irish revolution. Rather, the roots of actions taken at this time can be found in longer-term support of, or opposition to, the British Empire and British imperialism.
During the South African War of 1899-1902, two men with Dublin connections symbolise that. Thomas Francis Byrne, later called by some ‘Boer’ Byrne, was not originally from Dublin but came to live there and was in the General Post Office during the Rising (along with his future wife, Lucy Smyth). Michael Tracey was a working-class Dubliner and a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who himself saw action in Easter week 1916, but far from Dublin, losing his life in the German gas attack at Hulluch. The processes and attitudes which meant they played different roles at Easter 1916 had also seen them both in South Africa in 1899, Byrne as a member of the Irish Transvaal Brigade fighting against British forces, and Tracey as a Dublin Fusilier serving King and Country. Tracey did not leave any written record of his motives, but Byrne’s memories were set down in his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement in 1951. In that, he made clear how he and other members of the Brigade made sure the British knew they had been facing Irishmen, noting that after any act of sabotage, ‘We always left a notice “With the compliments of the Irish Brigade”, which was read by the British 15 minutes afterwards.’ That Tracey and Byrne played those roles points to the global and imperial dimensions of a conflict which developed in Ireland in 1916-23. It was influenced by factors wider than Irish politics, and was part of processes broader than simply Ireland’s relationship with Britain.
Moving forward to 1916, there was a concurrence of timing which saw one of the most famous moments of the Dublin Fusiliers’ war (the gas attack endured by the 8th and 9th battalions at Hulluch) take place on some of the bloodiest days of the Easter Rising. That was just a coincidence, but reference to the scope of Dublin’s service in the British military offers some understanding of how the Rising was received in a hostile manner in the city. There were plenty of reasons for the ‘separation women’ (those living on the separation allowances provided by the British army) to jeer the rebels, including not sharing their political outlook.
But recognising that the Rising took place in an area in which men served in large numbers in the British forces provides crucial context for the way in which it was received. Across the whole war, from the streets immediately adjoining the areas which were the key republican locations during the Rising, at least 1,082 men served in the British military. Not all had enlisted by April 1916, but 80% had. From roughly 868, 121 had already been killed before the Rising; 14 were killed during it (mainly Dublin Fusiliers at Hulluch). Later in the war, another 170 lost their lives. One street in particular points to high levels of military service from residences close to the Rising’s heart. Running parallel to its epicentre of Sackville Street (O’Connell Street) was Marlborough Street which had buildings destroyed at its southern end. Across the war, 65 men living there served in British forces, with nearly three-quarters in the ranks by late April 1916, and nine of those already dead. So it is easy to see why there would be little support in Marlborough Street for rebels whose Proclamation declared support from ‘gallant allies in Europe’, even though three of those involved in the Rising lived in the street themselves (Patrick Poole and his son John, and Henry Kenny).
Given these tensions among Dubliners, it is perhaps remarkable that any were able to switch sides, but there were massive shifts flowing partly from the war. That especially meant a change in political allegiances among the mass population as in most of nationalist Ireland.
In December 1910, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had won all four of the city’s seats, and both seats in the county. Unionists won the two Dublin University seats. In the December 1918 general election there were more seats and a greatly expanded electorate, though there is nothing to suggest that the working-class men and women who had been denied the vote previously were predominately republicans of longstanding. Instead, public opinion changed, due partly to the British reaction to the Rising (with the idea of the Rising being ‘treason’ inherently linked to it occurring at a time of war), but also the threatened introduction of conscription. The result was that while Unionists again won both university seats and one in the county, the other three county seats and all seven in the city were gained by Sinn Féin. In its manifesto, the party had drawn on the context of the war, condemning the IPP (though not by name) for having ‘endeavoured to harness the people of Ireland to England's war-chariot’. The manifesto went on in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in ‘appealing to the [Paris] Peace Conference for the establishment of Ireland as an Independent Nation.’
There was also crossing of the military divide, with some radicalised in the new political climate and willing to use their experience of the British military to assist the IRA. As the War of Independence developed, the value of former British servicemen became readily apparent. At least 16 Dubliners with British military service joined the IRA or assisted it, using their war record to secure positions of value the IRA.
On demobilisation in October 1919, Bernard Golden joined the IRA and was ordered to find civilian employment. Golden had probably served as a Gunner and then a Corporal in the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), first deployed overseas to France in August 1915. His likely service with the RGA is pointed to by his appointment to them post-war as a schoolmaster, when he provided information on their movements. Later, he worked as a Dublin Castle clerk and smuggled out files. British army veteran William Beaumont was persuaded by his brother Seán to help the IRA after experiencing rough treatment during a British search of a tram. Seán Beaumont later reckoned that his brother had supplied the names of all those targeted by the IRA on Bloody Sunday.
The highest-profile crossover from the British army to the IRA was Emmet Dalton, who had served in the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the Somme in 1916, winning the Military Cross. Dalton was alongside Tom Kettle when he died. Returning home in 1919, Dalton found his brother Charles in the IRA and soon joined him, working first in training. Exactly why Dalton crossed over is unclear. Tom Barry famously wrote how after service in the British army he was ‘enthralled’ by the ‘beauty’ of the words of the Proclamation of the Republic and became an ideological republican. There is no evidence of Emmet Dalton having such a conversion, and in one fictionalised account of his own life, his own character joined the IRA simply because ‘he was so fed up after four years in France’. Pádraig Yeates sees Dalton as a ‘hybrid patriot who came from a strong Home Rule family background.’ Dalton’s choice of service at different times was, Yeates says, ‘almost instinctive’ and responded ‘to the national mood’. At any rate, Dalton certainly had a strong service ethic, and a record of putting his life on the line for others by joining armies, beginning with the Irish Volunteers before the British army.
Dalton rose rapidly in the IRA and carried out the daring but failed raid on Mountjoy Prison in May 1921, attempting to break out the Longford IRA’s Sean MacEoin while disguised as a British officer (wearing his own captain’s uniform). With Michael Collins in London during the Treaty negotiations, Dalton played a decisive role at the outbreak of the civil war in securing the artillery from the British with which the National Army began its assault on the Four Courts, drawing on his wartime knowledge of the British army and the value of artillery. Having been present at the death of the icon of one strand of Irish nationalism, he was also with Collins when he was ambushed and killed. Dalton rose to be a general in the National Army but resigned towards the end of the conflict alarmed by the executions then taking place. In his later years, despite his status as an IRA legend (or perhaps because that meant he was one of the few who could say so), in 1966 he urged Irish people to remember the dead of the First World War in addition to the heroes of the Rising. They too, he wrote to the Irish Times, ‘were motivated by a just cause’. Interviewed by RTÉ in 1978, Dalton continued to describe the Rising as a mistake. He had crossed the divide without developing the zeal of a convert against his former British comrades.
These ‘crossover’ men and others like them were small in number. But their crossing over at all tells us much about the complications of this period of Irish history. To serve in the British army did not put you on one side of the divide for ever. That in turn points to the very contingent factors which made many others, in much larger numbers, join British or republican forces at different times. Meanwhile, the cases of Tom Byrne and Michael Tracey point to Ireland’s fight for independence, and the forces standing against it, being part of much wider and global processes within imperialism over many decades.
Professor Richard S Grayson (Goldsmiths, University of London) is the author of Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War (2009) and Dublin’s Great Wars: The First World War, the Easter Rising and the Irish Revolution (2018), edited At War with the 16th Irish Division: The Staniforth Letters, 1914-18 (2012), and co-edited Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland (2016).