The Conscription Crisis of 1918 had a more profound impact on the course of Irish history than the Easter Rising, writes Ryle Dwyer
Next week marks the centenary of the conscription crisis of 1918. It was essentially a bloodless revolution, and its impact has been greatly overlooked and undervalued in the story of the march to nationhood.
The immediate trigger was an overwhelming spring attack on the Western Front by Germany — the Kaiserschlacht, or Kaiser’s Battle — under the direction of General Erich Ludendorff. Hundreds of thousands of troops were released from the Eastern Front following the defeat of Russia, giving Germany a huge advantage which they hoped to exploit before the United States could establish itself more fully in Europe.
British generals and politicians wondered whether Ireland — where conscription had not been introduced in 1916 — could make up the shortfall in manpower through a compulsory draft.
Alderman Alfie Byrne proposed on April 8 that Dublin Corporation warn the British government that any attempt to implement conscription in Ireland would “be resisted in every town and village.”
Lorcan Sherlock, a former lord mayor of Dublin, persuaded the corporation to accept an addendum calling on the current Lord Mayor, Laurence O’Neill, to invite representatives of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), Sinn Féin, and the trade unions, to a national conference at the Mansion House, Dublin, in order to organise a united opposition to conscription.
Rumours included suggestions that clergymen would be conscripted in non-combat roles, so the standing committee of the Irish hierarchy met next day to consider that issue. “Whether there is any foundation for these rumours we know not at the moment,” the bishops admitted, but they unanimously denounced conscription, anyway.
“To enforce conscription here without the consent of the people would be perfectly unwarrantable, and would soon and inevitably end in defeating its own purposes,” the bishops insisted. “It would be a fatal mistake, surpassing the worst blunders of the past four years.”
Their protest was signed by Michael Cardinal Logue, along with the secretary of the standing committee — Robert Browne, Bishop of Cloyne. While they did not mention the conscription of priests, they were seriously concerned about the matter, according to Monsignor Michael Curran, secretary of the Archbishop of Dublin.
The Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, and The Cork Examiner, all provided a full report of the bishops’ protest. The Cork Examiner added a forceful editorial.
“England has no moral right to conscript the Irish people,” the editorial proclaimed.
“It is for an Irish Government — a Government selected by Irishmen — to decide how the manhood of the country is to be disposed of, and if the British Government usurps that authority and attempts to enforce it by superior strength, then the hypocrisy of Great Britain’s declaration that she is fighting to secure the rights of small nations, will stand exposed before the world.”
While the bishops were meeting (April 9), prime minister David Lloyd George introduced a new Military Services Bill. It was primarily designed to extend the maximum conscription age from 41 to 51, and modify some existing exemptions.
From the Irish perspective, the most important aspect was Clause 2, which stipulated that the government “may by Order in Council extend this Act to Ireland.” In other words, the British government could introduce conscription in Ireland by a back door without the necessity of any further legislation.
It was illogical and unjust to ask men in Britain from 18 to 51 — even married men with families — to fight in Europe, “whilst young men of 20 to 25 in Ireland are under no obligation to take up arms,” Lloyd George argued. “The Government shall, by Order in Council, put the Act immediately into operation.”
This sparked a conscription crisis that had a profound impact on Irish politics. The crisis demonstrated not only the enormous political influence of the Catholic hierarchy, but also bolstered Sinn Féin, and effectively undermined the once dominant IPP.
“The climax of British folly and blindness was the attempt to conscript the Irish clergy,” Monsignor Curran wrote. “One thousand Irish clerics would count mighty little against even one cohort of the Kaiser’s legions. But this most stupid of all steps inevitably drove the most conservative of conservative Irish bishops to share the leadership of opposition with Sinn Féin.”
Those in Holy Orders would not be compelled to perform combat services, but if there was a question about any person’s status in Holy Orders, the issue would be referred to a central tribunal. This tribunal would also decide whether the non-combatant privileges should extend to Christian Brothers and similar religious communities.
Tim Healy, the famous nationalist politician, derided the idea of conscripting monks from monasteries like Mount Melleray.
“The Trappist monks of Melleray would, absolutely every one of them be turned into soldiers,” he told the House of Commons. “You are making a laughing-stock of yourselves before the Irish people. The notion of old monks, who have been 30 years in a monastery, being dragged out of the monastery to be turned into British soldiers is a matter for ridicule.”
Daniel Cohalan, the Bishop of Cork, had a letter read out at all masses in Cork City, on Sunday, April 14, urging people to support the Mansion House Conference.
“I have no doubt but that meeting will give a strong lead to the country,” he wrote. “It is wise to wait until the joint leaders determine the policy to be adopted. And out of evil good may emanate; the divided sections of Nationalism may combine again into a united body which nothing can resist.”
The same day there many anti-conscription meetings in different parts of the country. These were usually called by Sinn Féin clubs, councillors, or the local clergy, who played a very active part in the towns and villages of Counties Donegal, Tyrone, and Derry. The local parish priest, or a local curate frequently presided at those meetings.
Fr James Harkin presided at the Castlefin meeting in Co Donegal, where he administered a formal pledge to which the people subscribed. The pledge read: “We, the undersigned, are determined to resist by every means in our power the application of conscription to Ireland without the approval of an Irish Parliament. We prefer to die as freemen sooner than be conscripted as slaves.”
These proceedings were to provide a virtual prototype for the campaign as it went national in a big way the following weekend, with Church figures playing a leading role throughout the island. The hierarchy was so concerned about conscription that it summoned a meeting of all the country’s bishops at Maynooth on April 18, the same day as the Mansion House conference convened.
Despite the vociferous opposition of the IPP, the conscription legislation was forced through its final stages of parliament just one week later. Members of the IPP withdrew from Westminster in protest. This was tantamount to endorsing the abstention policy pursued by Sinn Féin.
Two days later, the Mansion House Conference convened, bringing together the various nationalist leaders and three prominent trade union representatives — William X O’Brien, Tom Johnson and Michael Egan. Sinn Féin was represented by its president, Éamon de Valera, and deputy leader, Arthur Griffith. The IPP, which was somewhat fractured, had a strong presence.
John Dillon, who had succeeded to the leadership of the IPP following the recent death of John Redmond little over a month earlier, was accompanied by his deputy leader Joe Devlin, and joined by independents — Dublin Lord Mayor O’Neill, William O’Brien, and Tim Healy. The latter two had been expelled from the IPP. The co-operation of such politicians — who differed so much with each other, both politically and personally, was evidence of the unpopularity of conscription.
de Valera made a profound impression. For some days, he had been in touch with Monsignor Curran in the office of the Archbishop of Dublin. He had informed the office of his plans to draw up an anti-conscription pledge for the Irish public, and he agreed to forward this for archbishop’s consideration before the hierarchy’s meeting.
The pledge read: “Denying the right of the British Government to enforce compulsory service in this country, we pledge ourselves solemnly to one another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal.”
This pledge was accepted by the Mansion House Conference, and de Valera proposed the conference send a deputation to enlist the support of the Catholic hierarchy, which was meeting at the same time in Maynooth.
Archbishop Walsh was expecting the deputation, and the bishops responded by virtually sanctifying the campaign against conscription.
“An attempt is being made to force conscription upon Ireland against the will of the Irish nation, and in defiance of the protests of its leaders,” the hierarchy declared.
“We consider that conscription forced in this way upon Ireland is an oppressive and inhuman law, which the Irish shall have a right to resist by all the means that are consonant with the law of God.”
This formal declaration was signed by Cardinal Logue, William Walsh, the Archbishop of Dublin; and John Harty, the Archbishop of Cashel; along with 24 twenty-four other bishops. They announced that they were directing the clergy throughout the country to celebrate Mass the following “Sunday in every church in Ireland to avert the scourge of conscription.”
Moreover, they directed that details should be announced “at every public Mass” on Sunday of the time and place of a local public meeting at which people would be formally asked to pledge themselves to oppose conscription. The bishops adopted the pledge drafted by de Valera.
During the first week of the conscription crisis, opposition was somewhat haphazard. Prior to Sunday, the various public meetings were not centrally organised. People were looking to Sinn Féin, but it was united less than six months earlier, so it was not yet fully organised. Hence the Catholic clergy moved in and essentially led the anti-conscription campaign.
The Catholic Church undoubtedly had the best-organised network throughout the country. As a result, anti-conscription meetings were held in just about every parish on Sunday, April 21, 1918.
Usually the parish priest, or a curate, presided at those gatherings, which were announced from the pulpit at the morning masses.
The priests called on the men to take off their headgear and raise their right hand and solemnly repeat the pledge. Although it was actually drafted by de Valera and presented to the Archbishop of Dublin, many people thought the bishops drafted it.
“All over Ireland yesterday the pledge against conscription was solemnly taken,” The Cork Examiner reported. The congregations of seven different Galway churches marched to Eyre Square after 11 o’clock Mass to take the national pledge. A letter from Galway Bishop Thomas O’Dea was read to the gathering, denouncing conscription. “I approve and bless resistance to its enforcement by every means within the law of God,” he wrote. In Thurles, the Archbishop of Cashel told the gathering that “Ireland was threatened with torture by the people who persecuted her for centuries.”
Michael Fogarty, the Bishop of Killaloe, confidently predicted that the government would never attempt to implement conscription in Ireland, because it would be insane to move against the Irish people when they were more united that ever before. The three Cork bishops seemed to suggest much the same.
Bishop Cohalan administered the pledge to thousands of men assembled outside the Cathedral in Cork City after 12 o’clock Mass, while Denis Kelly, the Bishop of Ross, read the pledge to 3,000 persons at a meeting outside the pro-Cathedral in Skibbereen.
“If the people were calm, determined, and courageous,” Dr Kelly said, the Order to introduce conscription “would never be made.”
“We can, and shall, defeat this iniquitous measure of compulsory conscription, if we keep together from Donegal to Cork,” the Bishop of Cloyne declared in Cobh Cathedral, as he called on everyone to do their part — “to take the pledge and keep it.”