The Last Straw for Young Ireland

The preparations for rebellion which brought Sir E. Carson to be a Cabinet Minister instead of to the gallows inflicted two grievous injuries upon England. They had much to do, as we have seen, with the German Kaiser's determination to begin the World-War, and they laid down a precedent for Southern Rebellion to which is directly to be traced the responsibility for the succeeding five years' wars for the Irish Republic.

The official historiographer of the rebellion that did not come off, Mr. Ronald McNeill, M.P., tells us the story of the Larne gun-running expedition in the early part of 1914 on the authority of a manuscript narrative by its commander, a brave but featherbrained ex-apprentice of Messrs. Harland and Wolff's shipyard, named Crawford [25]. It is scarcely surprising that the book had been published for a considerable time before any newspaper ventured to notice it. In no Irish newspaper has its publication ever been announced at all, and in the British press the boycott has been all but as complete. It is packed with revelations which, in sterner days, would have consigned the author to the Tower and sentenced his book to be burned by the hands of the common hangman. Mr. McNeill makes no disguise of the Ulster leader's shrewd suspicion that, in importing their armaments from Germany, four months before the outbreak of the World-War, they were doing something, at the least, not unacceptable to the Kaiser:

"It may be doubted," he innocently observes, "with the knowledge that we now possess, whether the German Government would have been greatly incensed at the idea of a cargo of arms finding its way from Hamburg to Ireland in the spring of that year without the knowledge of the British Government."

The book, in fact, makes it clear that the cargo could never have started from Germany without the connivance of the most highly organised bureaucracy in the world. Where the armaments actually came from is no better explained than by the statement that the seller was an honest Jew broker in Hamburg "B.S." Who "B.S." may be, and what were his relations with the port authorities, or with higher powers, History will doubtless show an affectionate solicitude to discover. The honest Hebrew offered Sir E. Carson's agent a choice between cheap Italian and Russian rifles and a supply of 20,000 new Austrian and German rifles with bayonets. "The last mentioned of these alternatives was much the most costly, being double the price of the Italian and nearly treble that of the Russian arms; but it had great advantages over the other two. The Austrian and German patterns were both first-rate; the rifles were up-to-date clip-loaders, and what was the most important consideration, ammunition for them could be easily procurable in the United Kingdom." The costly Mausers and Mannlichers accordingly were the choice of Ulster. How this enormous weight of armaments (15,000 rifles and bayonets had to be brought from Austria) could have been assembled and packed in a single German port, and conveyed through the Kiel Canal without attracting the eye of a single German official during the month while the operation lasted, is a miracle which is only deepened by Mr. McNeill's ingenuous explanation. A miracle-worker, however, the mysterious "B.S." turned out to be:

"Whether any suspicion had in fact been aroused remains unknown. Anyhow the barges were ready laden with a tug waiting until the tide should serve about midnight for making a start down the Elbe and through the Canal to Kiel. The modest sum of £10 procured an order authorising the tug and barges to proceed through the Canal without stopping and requiring other shipping to let them pass. A black flag was the signal of this privileged position, which suggested the 'Jolly Roger' to Crawford's thoughts and gave a sense of insolent audacity when great liners of ten or fifteen thousand tons were seen making way for a tug boat towing a couple of lighters."

There was nothing so daring in the expedition as the suggestion that the All-Highest War Lord whose Baron Von Kühlman had just returned from Ulster, and who had but a short time previously entertained Sir E. Carson to luncheon, had not the remotest notion of the destination of the expedition which was for a month fitting out in the chief port of his Empire, and had an army of port officials so infantilely corrupt that "the modest sum of £10" was sufficient to bribe them into letting the rebel armaments pass unchallenged through the Kiel Canal and forcing "great liners of ten or fifteen thousand tons" to do homage to the black flag of the Belfast ex-apprentice. We shall all be delighted to make honest "B.S.'s" closer acquaintance whenever the Berlin and Hamburg archives yield up their secrets.

Mr. McNeill's endeavours to invest the Crawford expedition with a halo of romance display too much candour not to bring merciless ridicule upon his hero. In the matter of daring, it was a mere schoolboy adventure compared with Von Spindler's gun-running cruise in the Aud in the following year, with a cargo of arms consigned to a rebel destination in a different part of Ireland, for Von Spindler had to pierce his way through a great British fleet off the Scottish coast, the least destroyer of which could have sent him to the bottom at the first alarm. In the case of the Fanny, dealing with a Government like that of Mr. Asquith, danger there was none. Nothing could, indeed, be unkinder than the comic relief imputed by Mr. McNeill to the adventure from his own side. The leaders of the Ulster Provisional Government (with the one exception of Sir E. Carson) the bold Crawford found to be a pack of incapables and poltroons. To the Chief he addressed himself in desperation, to know if the Provisional Government meant business. The interview is worthy of the best comic business in the pantomine of old. "I shall carry out the coup if I lose my life in the attempt" quoth the bold Crawford. "Now, Sir Edward, I want to know are you willing to back me to the finish in this undertaking? If you are not, I don't go." What could be more sensible? Or what finer passage can you produce me in literature than the response of the Chief?—

"We were alone, Sir Edward was sitting opposite to me. When I had finished, his face was stern and grim and there was a glint in his eye. He rose to his full height, looking me in the eye; he advanced to where I was sitting and stared down at me and shook his clenched fist in my face, and said in a steady determined voice which thrilled me, and which I shall never forget: 'Crawford, I'll see you through this business, if I should have to go to prison for it.' I rose from my chair; I held out my hand and said: 'Sir Edward, that is all I want, I leave to-night, good-bye.'"

Mrs. Micawber was not more sublime in her most valiant hour of determination never to desert her excellent husband, than Sir Edward in his covenant to do a short time in jail, if his myrmidon "should lose his life in the attempt." And mark the cheerfulness with which he took the prospect of "having to go to prison for it" in the ordinary course of business, that being his lawyerly matter of fact way of discussing with the confidential Crawford the epoch-making catastrophe which he had led the trembling Prime Minister and his Hibernian advisers to believe was to result if a hair on his sacred head was touched.

What exactly was the danger of anybody "losing his life," over which there was all this display of emotion, Mr. McNeill leaves us wondering. True Mr. Winston Churchill, by a tragic gesture, had ordered the Fleet to Lamlash, where it was in a position to patrol the Irish Sea as effectively as a London suburban resident might survey his back garden. But the Ruler of the King's Navee was not going to be beaten in the fun by Mr. Crawford's black flag or by the protestations of Sir Edward Micawber. From the beginning of February to the 24th of April, Mr. Crawford was fooling about the seas with his pirate craft, the Fanny, with every conceivable precaution to attract attention—now flying from Hamburg to Belfast to screw up the courage of his Provisional Government by threatening to run his cargo ashore, or throw it overboard, unless they toed the line—now cruising in Danish waters, in the British Channel, off the Tuskar—at one moment transhipping his armaments from one ship to a second and a third one—at another losing the Fanny altogether and rushing about from London to Holyhead and besieging telegraph-offices with wires to inquire for her—and the Fleet paid no more heed to his peregrinations than if Mr. Churchill's dreadnoughts and destroyers were so many painted ships upon a painted ocean. Nor was the festive Mr. Birrell—"the Playboy of the Western World," as he had now come to be called, after Synge's hero—to be outdone as soon as the fun came within his own jurisdiction. "Half the motor-cars of the province" were collected for the discharge of the arms without disturbing the sleep of the Chief Secretary or his hosts. The wires of the King's Post Office were "earthed" by his liege subjects and we are told:

"The police and coastguards were peacefully picketed in their various barracks—they were shut in and strongly guarded. No conflict took place anywhere between the authorities and the Volunteers, and the only casualty of any kind was the unfortunate death of one coastguardman from heart disease at Donaghadee."

Whether from excess of indignation or excess of laughter, Mr. McNeill forbears to specify. A telegram with the single word "Lion" was despatched to Sir E. Carson and to Lord Londonderry in London, and the fine old Irish soldier, Lord Roberts, is not spared the smirch on his memory of recording his cry of "Magnificent!" on learning the success of this ridiculous exploit at the expense of the King's Fleet and the King's honour. Doubtless nobody was thoughtful enough to include the Kaiser among the recipients of the "Lion" telegram; but His Imperial Majesty had ample means of his own of learning the "magnificent" news of the demoralisation of England's Fleet at a moment when he must have been anxiously making up his mind whether or not to fight her. The astounding thing is that the particulars of this characteristic "Ulster Stand for the Union" are related, not merely without any suspicion that the author is convicting his heroes and himself of stark treason for which three months later men were being shot, but with all a schoolboy's gusto for their "magnificent" adventure "at the very time when Seely and Churchill" (that is to say, the King's Secretary for War and the King's First Lord of the Admiralty) "were worrying lest 'evil-disposed persons' should raid and rob the scantily stocked Government stores at Omagh and Enniskillen."

Prudence might have taught even the most purblind Government that the example of defiant law-breaking at Larne would be imitated in the South. When on July 26th the Sinn Féin "White Yacht" landed its cargo of arms at Howth, the Government were found more irresolute and self-contradictory than ever. First, they despatched a Resident Magistrate (Mr. Harrell) to seize the Nationalist arms; when the attempt failed and resulted only in the King's Own Borderers firing without orders and massacring men, women and children at Bachelor's Walk, Mr. Birrell tried to appease the Nationalists by dismissing the unfortunate Resident Magistrate, but only succeeded in sinking deeper into the contempt with which all men now regarded an Executive without the pluck to molest the cargo of the Fanny nor the consistency to let the cargo of the White Yacht go free.

The cheerful imbecility of the Government was maintained in the face of an Ulster now alive with an army regimented, armed to the teeth and provided with every requisite, from machine-guns to an Ambulance Corps officered by great ladies, for their openly proclaimed campaign against the law of their King and his Parliament. Before many months the teachings of Sir E. Carson filled the South with a rival army of Irish Volunteers, drilling, arming and parading at vast reviews after the Northern model.

The attitude of "The Party" to the new Irish Volunteer Movement was at first one of contempt. As soon as it grew too strong to be ignored, they abandoned their indifference for an attempt to gain control of the Volunteers by methods of tyranny which were eventually to prove "The Party's" own undoing. Discontent with a degenerate Parliamentarianism had long been fermenting, in secret among the young men of Ireland. Most of them in the South still clung to the All-for-Ireland movement, with its broad doctrines after Thomas Davis' heart, as a last means of interposing an honest barrier against the tide of pseudo-nationality and corruption that was overflowing the country. Another body of young idealists—principally in Dublin and its neighbour-hood—were gathering around Mr. Arthur Griffith who, so long ago as 1906, had laid the foundations of a Sinn Féin movement wholly disconnected with the subsequent uprising for an Irish Republic. By an odd freak of fate, the English newspaper men who swarmed over to Dublin after the Easter Rising of 1916, puzzled by the various categories of "Irish Volunteers," "National Volunteers" and "Ulster Volunteers," heard for the first time of Sinn Féin, the name of which was almost the only part of Mr. Griffith's original organisation which then survived, and ignorantly pounced upon it as a picturesque nickname for the Rebels of Easter Week.

Mr. Griffith was a thinker and writer of high purpose, of a tolerant temper and a dogged disregard for obstacles, but he lacked the gifts of speech and the indefinable spell of "personality" which must be there in order to inflame millions of men to follow in the train of a new National prophet. The only programme he specified with precision was the withdrawal of the Irish members from Westminster after the example which Deak set in Hungary. It was not the Parliamentary manoeuvrings of the Hungarian deputies in withdrawing from Vienna in 1861, it was the military overthrow of Austria at Sadowa that achieved the independence of Hungary. The same policy had been anticipated, so far as Ireland was concerned, in the famous "Repeal Year" and had defied the combined genius of O'Connell and Davis to make it practicable. It would have proved equally visionary now without the World War. The dislike of Parliamentarianism among thoughtful Irishmen was growing ever deeper, but the Parliamentarianism which was moving their repugnance was not the efficient Parliamentarianism of Parnell, which had all sorts of rich achievements to its credit, it was the Parliamentarianism which had parted with the independence of Parnell and sunk into a parasite of the English Liberal Party. The remedy might still lie in a reversion to the old model, rather than in throwing away Ireland's only available weapon of war until at all events some better one presented itself. Hence Mr. Griffith's gallant and single-minded efforts were of no avail, and the Sinn Féin movement proper had almost disappeared from public notice when the blunder of the English "War Correspondents" made its name immortal.

It was Sir E. Carson who first discovered to Irish Nationalists a new weapon which enabled them to dispense with debased Parliamentary methods. If in the North against the law of England, why not in the South to break the Hibernian despotism under which every generous aspiration of the Irish soul was perishing? The repercussion in the South of the revolt of the Privy Councillors of the North followed as quickly as the bullet follows the flash. How quickly is revealed in the Secret History of the Irish Volunteers from the pen of The O'Rahilly, who lost his life in the fighting of Easter Week. Sir E. Carson's Provisional Government was formed on September 24th, 1913. Little more than a month afterwards a dozen men meeting in Wynn's Hotel, Dublin, on the invitation of Professor Eoin MacNeill, took the first step to establish "the Irish Volunteers" (called after Grattan's Protestant patriots). So careful were the founders to avoid any suspicion of sectional or sectarian partisanship that "Arthur Griffith's name was deliberately not included, and only three of the twelve were then members of the Sinn Féin Party." "As we were all in agreement that the movement must be broadly National, and not confined to, or controlled by any particular Party," well known supporters of Mr. Redmond's Party, like the then Lord Mayor of Dublin (Ald. Sherlock) and Professor Kettle were among those first approached. But "refusals were the order of the day." Lord Mayor Sherlock bluntly declined to join the Committee and Professor Kettle pleaded "indisposition," although later both were glad to take quite an active part in the movement. It was even made clear that the new force was not to be organised in any hostile spirit towards Sir E. Carson or his Ulster Volunteers, but on the contrary in the hope of their being both brought to co-operate in some National rapprochement worthy of the old Protestant patriots of the North. The Nationalist youth of the South rather admired Sir E. Carson's pluck, were indebted to him for his example and encouraged by his impunity. In his first expedition to Cork to recruit for the Irish Volunteers Professor MacNeill even went the length of calling for three cheers for the Ulster leader for the lesson he had taught them that what he conceived to be great principles were worth daring and dying for. So sublime a doctrine of unselfish patriotism however was so little to the taste of the Board of Erin Hibernians, whose narrow sectarian intolerance still held the field, that a local Molly leader headed a charge to clear the platform by brute force and fractured the head of the Chairman, Mr. J. J. Walsh (who was afterwards member for Cork and Postmaster General under the Dáil Eireann).

But nothing could now quench the longing of the youth of Ireland for some escape from the corrupt atmosphere of the Hibernian tyranny to a higher and more generous plane. The leaders were little known, the Party Press met them with a remorseless boycott, the Parliamentary Party were still the recipients of the vast American and Australian funds without which no considerable purchase of arms was possible. All was of no avail against the mysterious instincts that were beginning to stir in the soul of the nation. Then came the Parliamentarians' classic resource against any movement of opinion that did not bear their imprimatur—their determination either to control it or to crush it. We have seen how, as under the incantations of some mediaeval witch her own brat waxed and prospered while her foster child pined and wasted, the Board of Erin Hibernians secretly cast their spells over the United Irish League until its Branches, its offices and its funds became their own; how they organised and subsidised the disruption of the Land and Labour Association as soon as it refused to merge its existence in theirs [26]; how the modest claim of the All-for-Ireland League for a bare hearing for the doctrines which have since become the last hope of the nation was beaten down with bludgeons and revolver-shots. The Irish Volunteers were now to be similarly practised upon. The Parliamentary leaders developed a sudden enthusiasm for the movement that could no longer be merely snubbed. The O'Rahilly tells us the Volunteers "discovered that the Hibernians had received secret instructions to form themselves into Volunteer Companies, to affiliate with Headquarters and secure control of the movement in their districts, with a view to control the coming Convention and to swamp the original Volunteers." "All the insidious influences known to the politicians' art were immediately brought into play inside as well as outside the original Committee. The primrose path to place, power and profit was temptingly displayed to Eoin MacNeill and his associates, but it was in vain."

When all else failed, Mr. Redmond was induced to try a coup d'état which was the very definition of an odious tyranny. He fulminated a ukase, on the plea that the Provisional Committee "was not sufficiently representative," claiming the right to nominate twenty-five additional members of his own, and threatening if his arbitrary demand were disputed to start a rival Hibernian Committee to disrupt the movement. And inasmuch as the secret Order had already flooded the Volunteers with bogus Hibernian Companies and the collapse of "the Home Rule Bill" was not yet sufficiently apparent to disturb the infatuation with which the country was still pathetically loyal to the watchword: "Trust Asquith," it was conceivable that Mr. Redmond might up to that time have been strong enough to make good his threat. The Original Committee submitted, and the twenty-five Hibernian nominees—including three priests of the Gospel of Peace who were prominent in the Hibernian Order—were admitted to the governing body, not, as it was soon evident enough, with any serious intent to form a military organisation but to emasculate it or turn it to Hibernian uses. It was a victory of the kind for which the Parliamentarians were soon to pay a heavy reckoning.

According to The O'Rahilly, who answered for his truthfulness with his life, the 25 Hibernian nominees were no sooner added than they proceeded to hand over supreme control to a Standing Committee of which they constituted themselves a majority, devoted their energies chiefly to keeping the Volunteers unarmed, and when arms were imported without their leave coolly ordered those who had paid for them to "loan" them to their own Hibernian nominees in Ulster. At the moment of the Coup d'état, two ships laden with arms were on the seas—The White Yacht, chartered by the Original Committee and L'Avenir of Antwerp, which set out with a cargo of arms purchased by Mr. Redmond. The White Yacht duly arrived at Howth and safely landed its rifles; L'Avenir for some mysterious reason abandoned any attempt to unload its cargo and put back to Belgium. The Standing Committee, now manned by the Hibernians, shut off all proposals to devote the American funds to the purchase of arms, carried on "a studied and well-sustained campaign to force the resignation of MacNeill and other members of the Original Committee by attacks, accusations and insults which in the interests of Irish decency," The O'Rahilly refrains from detailing, and crowned their performances by issuing the audacious order: "Send all guns to Ulster"—the meaning of which was that the rifles imported and paid for before the Hibernian nominees were forced on the Committee were to be handed over to the Molly Lodges in Belfast at the derisory price of 25/- apiece.

It seems certain that it was these high handed and unscrupulous attempts to capture and debauch the Volunteer movement which finally alienated the young men of Ireland from the Parliamentary movement and made the Easter Week Rising of 1916 inevitable. Mr. Redmond's double-faced and vacillating attitude at the outbreak of the World-War, when he first proposed that the Volunteers should take armed possession of Ireland and next that they should recruit for the allied front in Flanders, completed the indignation aroused even in the worthiest of his own followers by the conspiracy to convert the Volunteers into a Party organisation of the Hibernians. The members of the Original Committee, who had never formally admitted the Parliamentary nominees as members, declined to summon them any further to their meetings, and proceeded frankly to arm and drill the Irish Volunteers to seize the first opportunity for an Insurrection. The expelled Parliamentarians formed a rival organisation of their own calling themselves "The National Volunteers." The country battalions in preponderating numbers had not yet relinquished their faith in Parliamentary methods and might never have relinquished it had Mr. Redmond only seized the opportunity that, as will be seen hereafter, was afforded to him of rallying Nationalists and Irish Unionists in a war-policy which would have been a Freedom of Ireland policy as well. The trouble was that he never clearly understood what was to be his own function in the Volunteer movement, except to disarm it of any military significance and get its machinery into his own hands. He was still in a position to inspect vast reviews of "National Volunteers" with wooden guns and even guns that looked like genuine ones, but his double-meaning words left the fighting men cold and derision was added to all the other evidences of unreality when it was discovered that the arms which he had imported from Italy to supply his devout Hibernian Volunteers were ancient weapons of the Garibaldian raids upon the States of the Church, and that he had forgotten to order any ammunition for the venerable relics. All young and generous hearts, even in his own ranks, were turning from the squalid concerns of the politicians to the mystic voices from on high which were already whispering in the night winds.

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats, and a sample PDF can be downloaded. For more information on the book see details ».


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