The Outbreak of the War

When England, after more hesitation than is generally supposed, determined to throw in her fortunes with France as against Germany in August, 1914, three courses were open to Ireland, two of which had much to be said for them and the third which was wholly unwise. She might have held sternly aloof, in view of the unsettled condition in which her own affairs had been left, or she might have cordially joined the Allies in consideration of sufficient guarantees for the future of Home Rule, or she might follow the course which unfortunately Mr. Redmond did follow, of doing neither the one thing nor the other with firmness.

No apology was necessary to History, or in any other quarter, if Ireland took up the position that, having spent many almost humiliating years in petitioning for an honest peace with England, and having received nothing in return from a "Home Rule Government" except a miserable half-measure for three-fourths of the country on condition of the surrender of the other fourth, she would, in the spirit of "the Sacred Egoism of Nations" which moved every other party to the war, look to her own interests first of all, and abide events with the vigilant detachment which England so warmly admired and so magnificently rewarded in the case of Tcheko-Slovakia, Jugo-Slavia, Poland, The Trentino, Roumania and Greece. No thinking Irishman believed that England declared for war except under the conviction that it offered an opportunity which might never return of destroying the German trade which was beating her out of the market and annihilating the German Fleet which might soon be more than her match upon the seas. The touch of sentimentality over Germany's brutality to little Belgium came in happily enough, but did not impose upon those who remembered England's no less coarse brutality to Belgium not many years before when it was a question of laying hands upon her African empire on the Congo. As for the sudden transports of enthusiasm for France, it did not escape notice that a few days before the declaration of war, Sir E. Grey had promised the Kaiser to remain neutral, if he would invade France by any other route except the Belgian one, and would undertake not to bombard the Northern ports of France, which were within cannonshot of Dover. Nor was the pathetic correspondence between President Poincaré and King George likely to be forgotten in which the President pleaded and pleaded in vain that the war might yet be averted if the Kaiser was given plainly to understand that he would have England arrayed against him. Whither or not it was the Ulster Rebellion or general debility that was to blame, England went on hesitating to the last minute of the last hour. All this is recalled to demonstrate the arrant cant of finding it a crime in Young Ireland not to flame up in a fever of enthusiasm for the war against the most formidable enemy of England.

It is nevertheless the truth that, at the outbreak of the war, the number of passionate pro-Germans, even among the young men, was inconceivably small. There was yet a chance—indeed the assurance of success—for the second course of a reasoned and conditioned participation by Ireland on the side of the Allies. In the judgment of my All-for-Ireland colleagues and myself, this was the course which best consorted with the highest interests of Ireland. When invited by Mr. Redmond's most influential supporter in the South—Mr. George Crosbie, owner of the Cork Examiner—to define the lines on which united action by the nation in this sense could be secured, I drafted a Memorandum of which the chief articles were these:

1. That Mr. Redmond should take the initiative in inviting a Conference with representative Irish Unionists, some of the most influential of whom I was in a position to guarantee would act on his invitation.

2. I was willing either to attend such a Conference with him, or to abstain, as he might judge most useful.

3. Their abhorrence of Partition and the prospect of a united Irish contribution to the Army would be a sufficient inducement to obtain the concurrence of the overwhelming mass of the Irish Unionists in a broader Home Rule agreement (with due safeguards for minorities) to be then and there adopted by the Government as the price of Ireland's co-operation in the war.

4. Her contribution to be limited (according to Mr. Asquith's own estimate in Dublin) to an Irish Army Corps with reserves (say 60,000 men).

5. That force to be raised in county battalions (after due ratification of the Home Rule Settlement) by a joint recruiting campaign in which the Nationalist and Unionist leaders would speak from a common platform.

The scheme, it will be observed, made careful provision for the sensibilities of the Parliamentary majority and offered them, as it turned out, their last chance of recovering the leadership of the nation. The concurrence of the Unionists of three provinces and of the greater portion of the fourth was assured. That timid and slow-moving body, secretly all along in sympathy with the All-for-Ireland programme as they have since avowed, but intimidated from openly identifying themselves with it, would have joyfully declared for a Home Rule settlement that would at one and the same time deliver them from the terror of Partition and satisfy their loyal zeal for the war. Such a combination in such an hour of fate could have dictated their own equitable terms to British Governments and Parties, and not least to Sir Edward Carson who was beginning to be alarmed by the sense of his own responsibility for precipitating the war.

On the Nationalist side, a firm and united policy might still have carried all before it. The dissensions between the Original Committee of the Irish Volunteers and the imported nominees of Mr. Redmond had not yet come to a head. They actually endorsed Mr. Redmond's pronouncement which the House of Commons hailed with transports as a war-speech. A meeting of all parties which my colleague Mr. Maurice Healy and myself summoned together in the Cork City Hall pronounced for the Allies without a dissentient voice. The ardent body of a few score young men who were all that Sinn Féin was at that time able to muster under its flag in Cork were present, and bitter as was the trial for them and for our no less fiery All-for-Ireland youth as well of hearing trusted Nationalist leaders exhort them to take the side of England in a quarrel however otherwise after their own hearts, they listened in respectful silence and were willing to concede that the unpalatable advice came at all events from men with whom the interests of Ireland were as sovereign a consideration as with themselves. It took the strong arm of England to restrain their fathers from rushing to the aid of France in the German Invasion of the Année Terrible. To take up arms in defence of the head of the Celtic nations now would be the most joyous of duties could it only be squared with their first duty to Ireland. The contribution we stipulated for would have demanded a far lesser sacrifice of Irish blood than was afterwards squandered on British battlefields, bringing no thanks—bringing, indeed, bitter calumny on the race—at the hands of England. The Irish Army Corps, drawn from the best chivalry of a united nation, would have covered the Irish name with a glory second to that of no fighting race on all the battle front; their achievements would have earned the undying gratitude of democratic Britain; even at the worst—if Ireland's reward was still the old one of ingratitude and bad faith—they would have come home a disciplined and unconquerable army, fortified with the admiration and goodwill of all the honest world, in enforcing, by whatever means they might, the demand for the liberty the Allies were showering upon the most obscure of the small nationalities that had espoused their cause.

Once more, the right word had only to be spoken, and the nation would have followed. Once more it was the wrong word that was spoken and the wrong turn that was taken. Our proposals were forwarded to Mr. Redmond with the strong endorsement of his most powerful supporters in the South. His only answer was a pompous intimation, through his Secretary, that their communication would receive due attention. The proposals were, in matter of fact, never heard of more. Had Mr. Redmond any coherent plans of his own, his discourtesy would have been of less account. He had none. The war-speech in the House of Commons which made such a stir at the time was ludicrously misinterpreted in two opposite senses. The House of Commons, always unfathomably astray in Irish affairs, hailed it with raptures as an Irish Declaration of War against Germany, the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers as a promise to take charge of Ireland on condition that the British Garrison should be withdrawn. The speech admitted of both meanings because definite meaning it had none. Here was the essential declaration revised by Mr. Redmond himself:[27]

"I say to the Government that they may to-morrow withdraw every one of their troops from Ireland. I say that the coasts of Ireland will be defended from foreign invasion by her armed sons, and for this purpose armed Nationalist Catholics in the South will be only too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen in the North. . . . We offer to the Government of the day that they may take their troops away and that, if it is allowed to us, in comradeship with our brethren in the North, we will ourselves defend the coasts of our country."

The speech was probably unpremeditated, under the temptation to say something amiable in the chaleur communicative of the Declaration of War, and was assuredly not intended as a snare for England. The misfortune was that, in an hour for plainness of speech, it contained no definite policy at all. Probably nobody was more amazed than Mr. Redmond by the extravagant enthusiasm of his English listeners. He did not, in matter of fact, promise a single Irish recruit to the British Army, but only to "defend the coasts of Ireland" if the British Army abandoned the possession of the country to his Volunteers and Sir E. Carson's. "Defending the coasts of Ireland" was the favourite anti-recruiting locution at the moment. "Defending the coasts of Ireland" against whom? Not against the invasion of a German Fleet, from which the British Fleet alone could defend them. Mr. Redmond did not follow out the meaning of his words, but they were taken by the Irish Volunteers to mean the evacuation of the country by the British Army, and the taking of their places by the whole armed Nationalist manhood of the country, with no other use that could be conceived for their rifles except to try conclusions with the Carson Volunteers, should they prove recalcitrant. In his speech at a great Volunteer Review at Maryborough a fortnight later (August 16, 1914) there will not be found a word of exhortation to despatch a single Irish soldier on foreign service, but, on the contrary, a renewal of the cry of "the defence of the shores of Ireland" as the one business of his Volunteers and a confident assurance that he had got a promise from the Prime Minister "to arm, equip and drill a large number of Irish Volunteers" for that explicit purpose, adding that the remainder of the Volunteers would be armed "with the rifles which my colleagues and I supply and the rifles which are being supplied from various other quarters."

He furthermore endeavoured to reassure the country by spreading the mischievous delusion that the safety of Home Rule was now beyond all peril or mischance. In the House of Commons on September 16, he referred with indignation to the ungenerous hint of the Leader of the Opposition that his war-speech of August 3, "was an offer of conditional loyalty." "It was nothing of the kind," he exclaimed and proceeded to show "the absurdity of his making it a condition that the Home Rule Bill should go on the Statute Book, because all through we had the certainty it was going on the Statute Book." He propped up this fallacy with a painful lack of candour:

"I should like to say this, if the Prime Minister will allow me—that all through these negotiations, conversations and so on I have had with him—all through, on every occasion that I ever had any dealings with him about this matter, he has assured me that it was the intention of the Government to put this Bill on the Statute Book this session. From that he never wavered, and it would have been an utter absurdity for me to have made the putting of the Bill on the Statute Book under these circumstances a condition with reference to my offer of the Irish Volunteers."

The fallacy, of course, was that the Government had indeed promised to "put the Bill on the Statute Book," but only on the condition, agreed to by Mr. Redmond and his colleagues, that it was to be accompanied by an Amending Bill to be "put on the Statute Book" simultaneously, severing six counties from Ireland and over a million of her population and placing them under the sway of Sir E. Carson. The Irish leader conceals the fact that this was the upshot of all his "negotiations and conversations and dealings with the Prime Minister about this matter," and asks his countrymen to believe that the farce of "putting on the Statute Book" this barren and abortive Bill was so complete a triumph for Home Rule that any further bargaining or conditioning on the part of the representatives of Ireland would be "an absurdity."

The two objects of our All-for-Ireland proposals—the achievement of a great National Settlement under pressure of the war emergency, and a real, although limited, Irish contribution to the armies of the Allies as the price of it—were thus completely frustrated and the country left leaderless and bewildered even as to what their titular leader intended them to do. Matters changed not for the better but for the worse as Mr. Redmond felt himself impelled to live up to the unexpected fame of his absurdly misunderstood war-speech of August 3. But it was not until September 21, in a speech at Woodenbridge, he for the first time made a clear enunciation of a "twofold duty" of Ireland for service abroad as well as at home:

"The duty of the manhood of Ireland is twofold. Its duty is, at all costs, to defend the shores of Ireland against foreign invasion. It is a duty more than that of taking care that Irish valour proves itself on the field of war as it has always proved itself in the past. . . It would be a disgrace for ever to our country and a reproach to her manhood if young Ireland confined their efforts to remaining at home to defend the shores of Ireland from an unlikely invasion, and shrank from the duty of proving on the field of battle that gallantry and courage which has distinguished your race all through its history."

The Original Volunteers, who had understood his war-speech as a demand for the evacuation of the country by the British Army and its surrender to the custody of an armed Ireland, were thunderstruck by the proclamation at Woodenbridge of the "twofold duty" which they construed to mean recruiting in England's service, without any stipulation for the future of the Irish Cause, and they straightaway took steps to separate themselves from such a programme. They shook off the tyrannous hold the Parliamentarians had established upon an organisation they did not believe in, by the simple method of no longer inviting Mr. Redmond's nominees to their councils. Numerically their own ranks were still scanty, and for a time the Parliamentarians still enjoyed an apparent preponderance of men as well as a monopoly of funds in their rival organisation which they called the "National Volunteers." Mr. Redmond was so deceived by his usual misjudgment of Irish feeling, as to take the line, very unusual with him, of directing the coarsest abuse against the young men who had defeated his treacherous attempt to lay hold of their organisation:

"These men are not and never were Home Rulers. They may be or they may think they are revolutionists, or separatists, or international socialists, or they may be common or garden cranks, but you and I know they are not and never were Home Rulers. . . . When this terrible war is over, then I say the puny cavillers and cranks of to-day will again scamper away to their burrows and they will be forgotten in the universal rejoicing of a nation emancipated in spite of them." (Tuam, December 16).

The "twofold duty" was preached with a twofold voice during the winter, the recruiting exhortations being mostly reserved for elderly citizens in-doors, while the battalions of armed Volunteers outside were regaled with the glories of home service. But it was not long before he came to recognise that the discontent in his own ranks was deepening and widening. The sense of incompetence and shiftiness at headquarters was only confirmed for thinking men by his repeated assurances that "England has granted the autonomy for which we have been asking for a hundred years" (Kilkenny, October 19), and that the only thing wanting to their triumph was that "it would not be possible to summon our new Parliament while this war is raging"—assurances which in the mouth of the leader who knew that with his own consent the only "autonomy" granted by England was the destruction of Ireland as a national unit, and that, war or no war, a Parliament for all Ireland would never be assembled under the Statute of which he boasted, were falsehoods in substance and in fact. The growing conviction that the Irish leaders had been jockeyed and the country betrayed deprived the reviews of the "National" Volunteers, which were still large and showy, of all real meaning, and the recruiting for General Parsons' Division (whose misnomer, "the Irish Brigade" was one of the bizarre humours of its fate) gradually fell away, outside the Belfast neighbourhood where the Board of Erin Hibernians had still power enough to sustain Mr. Devlin in his perfectly genuine endeavour to beat up recruits.

It became the fashion to father the failure of recruiting for "the Irish Brigade" upon the arrogance and anti-Irish bias of Kitchener's War Office. But it was not the Hibernian leaders who should have been the readiest to complain of arrogance and ignorance at the War Office. The War Office appointed as the heads of the 10th and 16th Divisions Irish generals of sympathy and distinction, Gen. Parsons (and succeeding him Gen. Hickie) and Sir Bryan Mahon; they invited Mr. Devlin to review, both at Fermoy and at Aldershot, General Parsons' Division, to which he had unquestionably contributed a substantial contingent from Belfast, and made no objection while the Hibernian soldiers on parade received their leader with cheers and shouts of "Up, the Mollies!" although they ran the danger of much more numerous soldiers from the South responding with counter-cries not to the liking of "The Mollies." War Office rifles were even furnished to a body of Mr. Redmond's "National" Volunteers in Cork, who were for some time entrusted with the guardianship of the bridges in their gay uniforms (for the wearing of which, by the way, young men were a few years afterwards sentenced to terms of penal servitude). The failure of "The Irish Brigade" was due, not to the War Office, nor, as I am still persuaded, to the people, but to the vacillations and half-heartedness of their leaders. The thousands of gallant Irishmen who went to the front and died at the front, in the faith that they were dying for Ireland, were allowed to make their sacrifice in vain; the five hundred thousand men of Irish blood who fought in the armies of America, Canada, and Australia, as well as of Britain, were lost in scattered groups, whose valour brought small reward to the land of their fathers; even the best of the "National" Volunteers began to waste away back into the ranks of the original Irish Volunteers, sick of the politicians' tricks by which the country was being cajoled. It was all over with any war policy that could have brought "constitutional" redress to Ireland.

On the other hand, Sir E. Carson, on the brink of destruction in the eyes of England as one of the chief authors of the war, extricated himself with consummate tact from his dilemma. While the Hibernian leaders were spurning the offer of united action with their countrymen and incapable of initiating any coherent action of their own, Sir E. Carson drafted his contingent Ulster rebels of a few months before into an autonomous Ulster Division, and by their hereditary Orange war-cries as they crossed the Somme on their famous 1st of July and by the rest of their distinctive and well-advertised exploits more truly won the heart of England in their incomparably smaller numbers than the half-a-million of Nationalists of Irish breed whose blood watered the battlefields of Flanders and Galllpoli to no avail.

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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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