The anniversary of the founding of the Ulster Volunteer Force passed most of Ireland by without much notice. As previously stated here, the almost deliberate ignoring of the Protestant side of the Irish revolution, even when much of what followed after 1913 was a direct reaction to the founding of the Ulster Volunteers, is a shame, but such is life. I doubt that the centenary of the founding of the Irish Volunteers, in November, will pass by quite so unremembered.
An interesting thought popped up in the course of Timothy Bowman’s article in the latest History Ireland – ‘The North Began…but when? The formation of the UIster Volunteer force’ – when he asked the question as to just how serious and committed were the two opposing sets of militias when it came to the prospect of actual fighting. Unfortunately he did not elaborate too much, the focus of the piece being on the scatterbrained nature of the Ulster Volunteers’ founding. But it is a thought worth exploring.
Both the Ulster and Irish Volunteers were largely civilian in their make-up and most never fired a shot in anger at anyone. Portions of both organisations would join the effort in World War One, others would take part in the Easter Rising, but a very large proportion would never engage in any sort of actual combat, at least not in the guise of the Ulster or Irish Volunteers.
I think sometimes it seems, reading history books from school to today, as if Ireland was on an inevitable path to civil war when it comes to discussing home rule and these organisations that existed to defend it and defend against it. That’s probably too simple a viewpoint. We know that the Ulster movement was strong and set when it came to their objective, but would the situation have gone as far as actually shooting other Irishmen?
The Irish Volunteers objective, after all, was defensive, at least according to its initial manifestos, so we can perhaps infer that they would not have attacked the Ulster Volunteers without provocation. It is equally hard to imagine the Ulster Volunteers marching out of the province and on Dublin, for logistical reasons if nothing else. So would they really have come to blows?
Clashes around the borders of Ulster might well have been possible, small scale fighting and sectarian attacks that could have escalated into something more. But both sides lacked really sufficient training or experience in the sort of warfare that was usually fought in the terrain. Constant drill practise and basic marksmanship would not cut it in the field, as the experience of many in World War One (and in the Easter Rising, as it happened) would find out. They lacked enough assembled supplies – ammunition, food, water, fuel, aid – to fight any sort of campaign, being personally responsible for their basic needs and having no sort of government support or backing. They were scattered in branches all over the country, which would have made any movement difficult to organise. They were operating under a very muddled command structure, (as Bowman makes very clear in the case of the Ulster Volunteers) and there would have been confusion as to who was giving orders at any one time (remember Eoin MacNeil and the Easter Rising?) In the case of the Irish Volunteers their weapons were mostly antiquated and possibly not suited to actual combat in the field. They had no artillery, no air power, little naval power. Both sides still operated units of cavalry.
Any sort of fight between the two groups would have been small scale, brief and if I may be allowed to indulge in some educated guesswork, inconclusive. The Irish Volunteers had more men, the Ulster Volunteers had better arms, but both were out of their depth when it came to real war fighting.
People talking about the time also seem to forget about the RIC and British Army stationed in the country, as if they would have just stood idly by, paralyzed, while the Volunteer groups started a war. In the event of Home Rule being instituted, there would probably have been protests, opposition, maybe even riots in the north. But there would surely have been nothing on the equivalent of the Easter Rising, since the Ulster Volunteers did not exist to fight the British Empire.
In the event of an actual showdown, the British Army and the RIC would have stepped in, and being better armed and trained, would have been more than a match for either set of volunteers. Neither side would have wanted to attack the British, since both were trying to curry favour. If the British Army was in the middle then, how could there have been a war? Perhaps things would have devolved into a guerrilla struggle between the two Volunteers with the British as some sort of peacekeeping/COIN force, but would either side really have had the commitment for such a fight, or the means to engage in it for very long?
It is not hard to imagine that Home Rule was on the road to being modified into a 26 county arrangement anyway, which would probably have rendered the whole issue null and void, at least as far as the Ulster Volunteers were concerned.
Counter-factual history, better known as “What If?” history I suppose, is all well and good, but has little actual purpose. In the course of remembering our revolution, it might help if we examine what the potential consequences of home rule being made law would have been in specific detail, rather than use simplistic wording and rhetoric of “civil war”, a war that could well have been stillborn before it had even started.