The first World War: A mix of despair and optimism

The first World War provided both the opportunity for Irish republicans to plan their revolt and evidence that their ambitions were not shared by the majority, writes Diarmaid Ferriter

In October 1914 the writer George Russell (AE) wrote to his friend Charles Weekes, who had asked him why he was scared about Ireland: “I can hardly tell you because I can hardly explain it to myself. I have a conviction deep inside me that we are going to have one more heart-searching trial, baring our lives to the very spirit, and that within the next few years. May be much sooner. The dragons of the past have not died and were only sleeping. Recent events have stirred them.”

A year later, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had taken a further step in its determination to stage a rebellion; it established a small military committee of its Supreme Council, which by December 1915 had been expanded with an agreement the following month that a rebellion would be staged no later than Easter 1916. The secret military council had originally consisted of Pádraig Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and Éamonn Ceannt and was now joined by Tom Clarke and Seán MacDiarmada.

Why, by the end of 1915, had the Irish republican dragons stirred to such an extent? The answer lay in a potent mix of optimism and despair. The despair was born of the knowledge that there was no general appetite for rebellion; the optimism was generated by the idea that the world war provided an opportunity to do something drastic to try and change attitudes.

As IRB member Desmond FitzGerald, who was imprisoned in October 1915 under the Defence of the Realm Act for making a seditious speech, wrote in relation to the situation prior to the outbreak of the first World War in 1914: “Those of us who thought of home rule as something utterly inadequate were a very small minority, without influence . . . then came the War. I think our first reaction was one of jubilation. England would now be beaten and resurgent Irish nationalism would assert and make effective our claim to real autonomy.” But it was not as simple as that:


“Whatever degree of exultation possessed us soon gave way to a condition very close to despair. On the very declaration of war Mr Redmond made a statement assuring the English people that the Irish Volunteers would protect Ireland.

“But more disturbing than that mere statement was the fact that immediately it became apparent that it really represented the views of the majority of Irish people . . . our dream castles toppled about us with a crash . . . our national identity was obliterated not only politically but also in our own minds. The Irish people had recognised themselves as part of England.”

Despite such sentiment, however, John Redmond, as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was not having a good war. What had been expected to be a short conflict had turned out to be anything but, and his gamble on backing the British war effort was backfiring. The more unpopular it became, the more vulnerable he was. He rarely visited Ireland and was irrelevant to British politics; he had refused the offer of a cabinet seat in May 1915, as dictated by party policy.

The IPP was still a force to be reckoned with – historian Michael Laffan has noted that “although voters were apathetic, it still maintained a wide if shallow support base, and home rulers won all the six by-elections they contested between the outbreak of war and late 1916” – but what the conspirators were planning was to ensure that the focus would not be on parliament but on something far more radical and Redmond was not in a position to do anything beyond hoping that home rule would eventually be delivered at the war’s end.

His nemesis, Ulster Unionist leader Edward Carson had trenchantly supported Britain's military effort at the outset of the war, insisting, "England's difficulty is not Ulster's opportunity, England's difficulty is our difficulty".

In historian Alvin Jackson’s words, the war “ended Carson’s career as a rebel”, but he created a new kind of clout. In May

1915 he accepted the post of attorney general of England but only served briefly; enraged by the costly mistakes of the British campaign in Gallipoli, and what he regarded as the Allied betrayal of Serbia, he resigned as attorney general in October 1915, to become a harsh critic of the coalition government.

In January 1916 he was elected leader of a new parliamentary group, the unionist war committee, who demanded a more robust and effective mobilisation of British military resources, thus making Carson a leading opposition voice in parliament.

Undoubtedly, the war impacted on the mindset of the conspirators in different ways. It heightened the fixation of Pearse on the idea of blood sacrifice: in December 1915 he wrote: “War is a terrible thing, but war is not an evil thing. It is the things that make war necessary that are evil”.

But he went further than that, by celebrating the carnage: “It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never offered to God as this, the homage of lives given gladly for love of country.”

Socialist James Connolly, commander of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) had no time for this hysteria; the war drove him to despair because of its implications for a socialist revolution, which, by late 1915, he accepted would have to be parked: what he referred to as the "carnival of slaughter" that defined the world war propelled him to declare "war against war".

By late 1915, his increasing militancy was a concern for the IRB as it had already decided on insurrection, which pushed them into bringing him on board. By late January 1916, both had agreed on a joint uprising, which ensured the small ICA would be centre stage alongside the Irish Volunteers. Seán Mac Diarmada was particularly influential in talking to Connolly and gaining his approval of the plans for the rising and his co-option to the military council which subsequently also co-opted Tomás MacDonagh as a seventh member.

Concentration on the kind of rhetoric and sentiments emanating from Pearse and Connolly, however, should not distract from the need to look at cold-blooded calculation in the months before the 1916 Rising.

That year, 1915, was a year for laying plans, and orchestrating the rebellion was about concrete, practical details of organisation, strategy and arms. In the first few months of 1916, members of the IRB military Council were at the centre of logistical preparations for the rising.

This involved secrecy and deceit, seen, for example, in the approach of Tom Clarke. As historian James Quinn has written: “During his long imprisonment Clarke had brooded on the inadequacies of previous Fenian conspiracies; now that he was in control, he insisted on rigorous planning and absolute secrecy. He hid his intentions from almost all his IRB colleagues and responded to their suspicions with evasion, indignation, and, on occasion, lies.”

Clarke also provided the crucial link between the IRB in Dublin and Clan na Gael (CnG) in New York, the American wing of the Fenian movement. Towards the end of 1915, Clarke worked closely with CnG's John Devoy to arrange the landing of German arms in Ireland and was also planning the details of the Dublin rising.

Devoy was frustrated at what he regarded as the bungling of Roger Casement who had been in Germany since October 1914 but had little to show for it; he had tried to persuade captured Irish prisoners of war to join an "Irish brigade" which would support an Irish Rebellion but secured only 56 recruits from a total of about 2,300 prisoners. He had sought to persuade the Germans to assist an Irish rebellion but became disillusioned at what he saw as their inadequate commitment, describing their plans as "practically three men in a boat to invade a kingdom".

Nor was Clarke impressed with Casement, which is why in October 1915 he sent Robert Monteith, a former British soldier and committed Irish nationalist, to Berlin. Monteith also experienced frustration; Germany’s military elite was now against the deployment of an Irish brigade, preferring to use them for an invasion of Egypt.

By February 1916, when the order for arms for the rising came from John Devoy, the German general staff agreed to send 20,000 rifles on the Aud, but, crucially, refused to send any men. Casement decided the rising was doomed and prepared to return to Ireland to advise against it. The Germans, historian Leland Lyons later observed, while at war with Britain, were still likely to regard Ireland as "a remote and improbable sideshow in which it would be folly to make a major investment of men and materials at a critical moment in the war."

Why did the British government not move against the conspirators? As the British government's Chief Secretary in Ireland, Augustine Birrell was the most senior British administrator in Ireland prior to 1916 and he resigned in its aftermath because the Rising led to damning conclusions about the incompetence of British rule in Ireland.

These were laid bare in the report of the Royal Commission on the Rebellion in Ireland, which concluded, “if the Irish system of government be regarded as a whole it is anomalous in quiet times and almost unworkable in times of crisis”. It highlighted that at the end of 1914 there were 8,000 Irish volunteers drilling with 1,400 rifles, and insisted, “No opportunity should have been given for the drilling.”

Countless warnings about a possible uprising had been ignored; as early as September 1914 the Royal Irish Constabulary had warned that Irish republicans “may attempt some escapade before long” and ultimately, according to the commission’s report, “lawlessness was allowed to grow up unchecked” and law was left “in abeyance”.

Birrell was deemed to be “primarily responsible” for this, a responsibility he willingly accepted. Conspirators in the Irish Volunteers and IRB, while continuing to prepare for armed conflict, had paraded and practised openly, but neither Birrell nor his under secretary, Matthew Nathan, were aware that the IRB had already made arrangements for German help for a rebellion, a matter that had became known to naval intelligence, which had decoded German diplomatic cables between Washington and Berlin in 1915-16.

Not passing this information on to Dublin Castle was puzzling and costly. It was a British administration that was being, in the words of Charles Townshend, “bombarded with warnings about the approaching rebellion”.

The growing ineptitude of British rule in Ireland was characterised by “the deep ambivalence about the balance between suppression and provocation”. John Redmond also advised Dublin Castle to show restraint towards republican militants and later rued the reassurance he gave to Birrell that there was no danger of a rebellion.

What was the general Irish public experiencing by late 1915?

There were tensions and uproar over profiteering, food shortages, the requisition of hay crops and increased taxes and inflation. Undoubtedly, cost-of-living issues gnawed away at support for the war, and the British warned 48 clergymen in 1915 for speaking against recruitment of Irish men for service in the British army.

But life was not all about drudgery; social life was vibrant and varied and people were on the move; alongside sport and language, there was a great interest in music, dance and theatre. Extensive rail travel and the bedding down of the organisational structures of the association facilitated the development of national GAA competitions. Silent movie cinemas were becoming more numerous and many larger towns had music halls; temperance meetings were also common as were accusations that “separation money” paid to the wives of Irish soldiers in the British army was being squandered on drink.

A radical but small-circulation nationalist press stoked anti-war feeling; at the commencement of the war the radical press (driven by what John Redmond referred to as “handfuls of corner boys”) was thriving, with over 35 weekly newspapers that, according of historian Ben Novick, could be categorised “as Sinn Féin, Labour or IRB”.

The editors had their battles with the censors but the newspapers were by no means eradicated (the prolific journalist Arthur Griffith was a master of newspaper reinvention) and included such titles as The Irish Volunteer, Nationality, The Worker's Republic, The Hibernian and The Spark.

Mass mailings, handbills and posters were also part of the propaganda battle, a Sinn Féin anti-recruiting poster asking, “Why should you fight for England? Is it in gratitude for the priest hunters and the rack of the Penal Days?”

On the other side of the argument, a prominent book in 1915 was Battle Songs for the Irish Brigades, a collection of patriotic ballads written by Stephen Gwynn and Tom Kettle, who both served in the British army. It asserted: "The present war, for all its grim looks, holds out to Ireland fair and high promise of the future."

There was a lively culture of nationalist drama in Dublin, Cork and Belfast fuelled by playwrights who, Roy Foster observes, recycled themes from Irish history “presented with maximum pietistic uplift”, often featuring a “charismatic purist” set against a world of “conventional compromise”. These efforts, combined with advanced militancy, brought a heightened elation for some; the insistence of Tomás Mac Donagh regarding the planning of rebellion was that it was not enough to be an author; he felt compelled “to live things that I had before imagined”.

This is the kind of assertion that provides evidence that for some, the Rising was conceived as a drama, where the actors would have the stage to themselves. In 1967, FX Martin suggested: “It was imaginatively planned with artistic vision and with exceptional military incompetence. The revolt was staged consciously as a drama by its principal actors.”

Eoin MacNeill, as chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers, though not a pacifist, took a more prosaic view: he did not believe a Volunteer uprising was feasible or justified, as it would lead to suppression of the organisation and abandonment of home rule.

His logic, as enunciated in February 1916, was clear: the only justification for rebellion would be “deep and widespread popular discontent”, but “no such condition exists in Ireland”. He also insisted “what we call our country is not a poetical abstraction . . . it is our duty to get our country on side and not be content with the vanity of thinking ourselves to be right and other Irish people to be wrong.”

Far away from these domestic tensions about what was or was not justifiable for nationalists and republicans to attempt, thousands of Irish men were experiencing the reality of carnage; almost 150,000 were serving in the British army by the time of the Rising. Their experiences were just part of the industrial-scale slaughter and maiming of world war combatants.

In September and October 1915, brigades of the 10th Irish Division were in action at the Karajakois and Yenikoi. By December, leading elements of the 16th Irish division had landed in France. The following month, a depot for 4,000 wounded Irish soldiers was established in Co Tipperary and the16th Irish Division at Loos got its horrific introduction to trench warfare.

What was being planned by the IRB, however, was a very different type of warfare. Nonetheless, the international context was central to the plans being made in 1915; the international conflict, in the words of historian Keith Jeffery, “presented a suitably violent model for political action and defined the moment when that action was likely to occur”.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD and author of A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-23, published by Profile Books