4/8/1918 Gaelic Sunday: Irish athletes defy the British Empire

With failure of the German offensives on the Western Front the threat of conscription in Ireland has receded. Nevertheless the country remains in a ferment, with nationalists continuing to campaign against any proposal to introduce conscription. Many are now preparing plans to sever the link between Ireland and Britain, bringing an end to the United Kingdom. The British authorities have responded with repression. Leaders of Sinn Féin have been arrested under wartime emergency powers, accused of working to assist a planned German invasion. Nationalist public meetings have been banned.

The ban on nationalist meetings includes sporting events organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association. GAA members play camogie or hurling and Gaelic football rather than hockey and rugby or soccer, which marks them out as suspicious to the authorities. Many in the GAA are supporters of Irish nationalism and the British see their fixtures as occasions for sedition. In support of the ban on nationalist gatherings, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary have been breaking up GAA matches, baton-charging onlookers.

Now the GAA strikes back in an event that becomes known as Gaelic Sunday. Today at 3.00 pm across the country some 1,800 Gaelic games take place, with tens of thousands of men and women taking part in these matches and many more watching. Against a widespread protest of this scale the authorities are powerless. The act of defiance has the deserved effect: the British authorities retreat from their policy of direct confrontation with the GAA.

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Freeman’s Journal report on Gaelic Sunday (Come Here To Me: Camogie and protest on the streets of Dublin: Gaelic Sunday, 1918)

20/6/1918 Arthur Griffith wins East Cavan by-election from his English prison cell #1918Live

British plans to introduce conscription in Ireland have alienated wide swathes of opinion there. After a series of strikes and demonstrations against the measure, plus pledges by Irish women not to take the jobs of conscripted men, the British authorities have back pedalled on their plans and effectively abandoned plans to draft Irishmen. The successful resistance to the German offensives on the Western Front and the increasing numbers of US troops arriving in Europe have in any case reduced the need for Irish soldiers.

Nevertheless, Ireland remains tense. Sinn Féin leaders have been arrested by the British, accused of treacherous plotting in support of a German invasion of Ireland. One of these is Arthur Griffith, founder of the party but no longer its leader. Today he finds himself elected to the House of Commons in a by-election held in the East Cavan constituency, where the sitting MP had died. Griffith soundly defeats the candidate from the more moderate Irish Parliamentary Party, reversing a run of by-election defeats suffered by his party.

Sinn Féin’s policy is for its MPs to not take their seats in Westminster. The British authorities assist Griffith in this regard, preventing him from leaving Gloucester jail.

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poster (Fr Michael O’Flanagan, from Cliffoney to Crosna: Fr O’Flanagan’s Suppressed Speech, May 1918)

17/5/1918 Sinn Féin leaders arrested as Britain strikes against “German plot” #1918Live

Ireland is in a tumult thanks to British plans to introduce conscription. Nationalist parties Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliamentary Party have joined forces with the Catholic Church and organised labour to oppose the measure.

Despite the opposition and warnings from senior figures in the local administration, London is determined to bring conscription to Ireland; such is the desperate need of new recruits to make good the losses suffered in the German spring offensives. Lord French (previously the British commander on the Western Front) has been appointed Lord Lieutenant in Ireland. A member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, French is convinced that firm measures will bring the lower orders to heel.

Some of the British suspect a German hand in the unrest in Ireland. Joseph Dowling, captured after a U-boat landed him in the west of Ireland, has spun a tall tale about Sinn Féin leaders being in league with Berlin and preparing for a German invasion of the Emerald Isle. Lord French himself is sceptical, as are others, but Dowling’s story finds a receptive audience in London. The British decide to nip this plot in the bud by rounding up the Sinn Féin leaders before they can get up to any further mischief.

Now the British strike. Ireland wakes up this morning to learn that more than 70 leading members of Sinn Féin have been arrested, including Éamon de Valera, Constance Markievicz and Arthur Griffith. The British hope that this bold step will decapitate the troublesome party and bring an end to the unrest in Ireland.

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Some of the arrested Sinn Féin leaders (Ireland’s Own: The German Plot)

23/4/1918 Ireland strikes against conscription as London prepares a crackdown #1918Live

Ireland is in a tumult over British plans to extend conscription there. After rallies were held across the country two days ago, today the country is engulfed in a general strike against conscription called by the Irish Trade Union Congress. The strike is hugely successful with shops, factories, railways and even pubs closing across the country. The one area that remains largely immune from the strike is the north-east, where pro-British sentiment remains strong among the Protestant and Unionist community.

The strike is disconcerting to the British authorities, who note the involvement of the subversive Sinn Féin party in the anti-conscription campaign. Meanwhile in London Joseph Dowling, who was arrested in Galway in mysterious circumstances, is under interrogation by British intelligence officers. The British promise to spare Dowling’s life if he co-operates; in return he confesses that he is a former British soldier who joined Roger Casement‘s Irish Brigade after being captured by the Germans. He further reveals that he was transported to Ireland by German U-boat and tells his interrogators that he was sent to liaise with Sinn Féin leaders in advance of a forthcoming German invasion of Ireland.

Dowling’s fanciful tale of a Sinn Féin plot to assist a German invasion finds a receptive audience in London. British leaders now make plans to decapitate Sinn Féin by rounding up its troublesome leaders. Perhaps in so doing they will also break the back of the anti-conscription movement.

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First Irish Conscript (National Library of Ireland, @NLIreland on Twitter)

21/4/1918 Nationalist and Catholic Ireland unites against conscription #1918Live

The German offensives on the Western Front are taking a heavy toll on the British. Every man is needed refill the depleted ranks of its force on the Continent. Britain introduced conscription in 1916 but did not extend it to Ireland, fearful of the consequences in that restive part of the United Kingdom. Now the army’s desperate need for more men has turned attentions back to Ireland’s exemption from the draft.

The authorities in Ireland continue to warn of the dangers of forcing men into the army, but they are not heeded in London. Parliament has passed a new law allowing for the extension of conscription to Ireland (with older men across the United Kingdom also being subject to the draft, such is the army’s need for manpower). It looks like it will not be long before Irishmen are being rounded up and sent to die in France and Belgium.

The threat of conscription has the effect of uniting broad swathes of hitherto mutually hostile Irish opinion. At a conference in Dublin on the 18th hosted by Lord Mayor Laurence O’Neill, representatives of Sinn Féin, the more moderate Irish Parliamentary Party, the Labour Party, the trade unions and smaller parties formed the Irish Anti-Conscription Committee, agreeing to oppose conscription by any means at their disposal.

Today rallies are held across the country to oppose conscription. It is a Sunday, so much of the focus is on meetings at the church gate. The Catholic Church is wary of involvement in politics, save in defence of its own interests, but so broad is opposition to conscription that it lends its support to the struggle. Protests against conscription happen within the churches as well as at their gates, with many priests denouncing enforced enlistment from the pulpit.

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Members of the Irish Anti-Conscription Committee (Wikipedia: Conscription Crisis of 1918)

4/2/1918 Bolshevism spreads to Ireland? #1918Live

Unrest has been spreading in central Europe, with Germany and Austria seeing a wave of politically-tinged strikes and elements of the Austro-Hungarian fleet at Cattaro mutinying to demand an end to the war. Much of this is inspired by the revolution in Russia, in particular the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, which is seen as having at last put ordinary workers in power there.

Some in Allied nations too are hearing the call of the Bolsheviks. The political situation in Ireland is already tense. Many Irishmen and women want to secure the country’s independence from Britain, while there is also much concern at rumoured plans by the British to extend conscription to Ireland. Support for socialism is just another element in Ireland’s fevered political culture.

In Dublin today the Socialist Party of Ireland holds a rally in the Mansion House in support of the Bolshevik revolution. Attendance is far higher than expected, with some 10,000 people present, far more than the hall can accommodate. Irish supporters of the Bolsheviks spill out onto the street outside while those within hear speeches from radicals including Constance Markievicz and others who had either taken part in the Easter Rising of 1916 or been interned afterwards. ‘The Red Flag’, whose words were written by Irish socialist Jim Connell, is sung with great gusto.

Is Ireland on the brink of a socialist revolution? Conservative newspapers certainly think so, warning their readers to be on their guard lest Bolshevik anarchy extends its tentacles to Erin’s shore.

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The Mansion House (RTÉ: Century Ireland)

see also: Backing the Bolsheviks, Dublin 1918 (Come Here To Me!)