The Boer War was a part of a series of nineteenth century conflicts, starting most definitively with the Crimean War, that had a great deal of international attention, owing to the large journalistic presence and the advances in communication technology that allowed reports from the front to reach European newspapers very quickly. German, French and Belgian eyes were locked on the British advances in South Africa, owing as much to their continental rivalry with Britain as to their own African agendas. And so, of course, were Irish eyes.
This period of Irish history is, in truth, a quiet one in terms of military affairs. The Fenian rebellion was already a distant memory, and entities like the Irish Republican Brotherhood were underground. But the Boer War, and the Irish reaction to it, offered a chance to exert some pressure on the authorities, who, in the course of the South African conflict, would become worried once more about an uprising in Ireland.
Much of the pro-Boer sentiment found itself centring on the “Irish Transvaal Committee”, a revolutionary, and in many ways socialist, organisation that rallied pro-Boer opinion and tried to mould it into financial and practical support for the cause, with mixed success. While they never really got around to undertaking much vaunted projects like arranging for an ambulance corps to be sent to South Africa, they were responsible for thunderous and eye-catching anti-recruitment campaigns, aimed at stopping the British Army, and local militia, from signing up new members and sending them to fight. Figures like Arthur Griffith and Maud Gonne were intimately involved in this, joined by other serious political heavyweights of their day. The early Boer victories were celebrated wildly, keeping the Committee politically and socially relevant.
As early as December 1899, a riot broke out in College Green during a mass protest organised by elements of the Committee, aimed at Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary for Colonial Affairs, who received an honorary degree from Trinity College on the 18th of that month. The demonstration included the unfurling of a Transvaal flag and a public call for arms to be sent to the Boers, and prompted a baton-led response from the Irish Constabulary. No one was killed, but the scene was vicious enough, enough that no further mass demonstrations against the war took place in Dublin. One of the chief organisers of the event were the relatively new Irish Socialist Republican Party, that espoused a communist ideology and supported the creation of a worker’s republic: it’s leading light was a Scottish born veteran of the British Army named James Connolly, who had deserted some years previously. It was Connolly who made the somewhat daring but unwise suggestion during the riot that the protestors should seize the sparsely defended Dublin Castle: such an act would likely have turned a riot little noted in Irish history into a bloodbath.
But the furore over the Boer War would not be relegated to chaotic clashes with police, but instead would allow the fight for Irish self-determination and independence to enter more firmly the realm of electoral politics. As you would expect, nationalist Ireland was firmly on the side of the Boers, some to the extent that they took the long trip south to actually take up arms in the defence of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. The Irish Parliamentary Party, very recently reconciled following the disastrous Parnell split, was part of the British parliamentary opposition to the war, nominally headed by Liberal leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman, but there was only so much that they could do in the face of a gigantic Tory majority in the House of Commons.
General elections were, of course, grandstand events that would bring out every shade of Irish political opinion, from the hardcore unionists to the militant republicans. The “khaki” election of 1900 saw a huge IPP majority among the Irish seats. But by-elections to fill seats vacated would also prove to be interesting battlefields of their own, that would intimately involve some of those fighting in the Boer War itself.
The constituency of South Mayo was represented by Michael Davitt, the Land League founder, in the later years of the 19th century, before Davitt quit the seat due to his opposition to the war and his desire to visit South Africa himself. The Irish Parliamentary Party duly hoped that they would essentially keep the seat with a walkover, owing to the relative harmony that they had been able to create, but they were in for a rude surprise, when the more militant brand of Irish nationalism decided to run a candidate.
The extent of John McBride’s political ambitions will never truly be known, and it is likely enough that he had little clue as to what was being done in his name in Ireland. But an Independent Nationalist candidate for the constituency of Mayo he became, much to the consternation of the IPP. The IPP fully backed their candidate, the little noted John O’Donnell, a quiet young man who, it would emerge, had once tried to join the RIC. It was a marked contrast, as marked as the contrast between the IRB and the IPP: one candidate a hardcore republican fighting against Britain on the foreign fields, and the other so timid as to briefly consider leaving the race rather than face an actual contest. Both men were absent for the contest – McBride owing to his military service, O’Donnell due to an ill-timed coercion charge – and so it became a mostly factional issue, over who best represented pro-Boer feeling.
McBride’s campaign, managed by Artur Griffith, made some headway and headlines, but was vigorously opposed by the IPP, who warned that the nominally Independent McBride was an IRB candidate in all but name. When the votes were counted, O’Donnell handily defeated McBride, though only 25% of the electorate actually voted. Regardless, it was a crushing defeat for the IRB and the Irish Transvaal Committee in the short-term.
Then, in November of 1901, the other major leader of Irish commandos in South Africa, Arthur Lynch, also stood for election in Ireland, also in absentia. However Lynch’s candidacy in a Galway by-election, called after the Unionist incumbent was elevated to the House of Lords, lacked the drama of McBride’s tilt in South Mayo. Lynch ran as an IPP candidate, opposed by the unique Horace Plunkett, a Unionist who approved of Home Rule, who had recently lost his seat in Dublin. Lynch, in absentia, romped home to victory on the back of the conservative IPP platform. Unfortunately for Lynch, his service for the Boers was too big to overlook: upon travelling to London to take up his seat he was arrested, tried and convicted of treason. Initially sentenced to be hung, his punishment was commuted and he was released a year later, eventually receiving a pardon and running again, successfully, in 1907, though his political career failed to really dazzle.
So, the militant factions of Irish nationalism were defeated at the ballot box, or had their political victories neutered by British law, but it would be a mistake to say that they lost out. Vital experience was gained in electioneering by those who would go on to spearhead entities like Sinn Fein and their eventual electoral dominance: men like Arthur Griffith, whose political and electoral savvy would be praised later in the period, got their start in these by-elections, on the losing side. The gradual turn to militancy at the ballot box would not become an unrelenting tide until much later, but the first trickles of it were already evident.
As for the Irish Transvaal Committee and the IRB’s efforts to take advantage of the Boer War, these both fizzled out as British dominance in the conflict became obvious. The IRB helped to transport some men to the Cape, as did nationalist societies in the north, where Catholic gangs on the Falls Road of Belfast had taken to naming themselves after Boer generals. Maud Gonne was briefly engaged in a madcap scheme to finance the making of bombs to blow-up British troops ships, while Connolly clashed with Griffith over whether a sudden seizure of Dublin by a small group of armed nationalists would result in a wider revolution. Connolly was fully behind the idea, believing that all that had to be done was to make a strike and others would follow: Griffith was appalled, predicting the quick end of such a rising, from naval bombardment if nothing else. It was an eerily accurate prediction. By the time the war ended, pro-Boer feeling in Ireland was still high, but the impetus to turn it into something more violent had long passed.
These by-election campaigns and political agitation were only one small-part of a deeper conflict between the politically and revolutionary minded in Ireland. It was an era when things that would come to their final conclusion two decades after were being set-up: part of this was the gradual infiltration of the various arms of the Gaelic Revival by entities like the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who saw in them potent recruiting grounds. The Gaelic Revival and this infiltration will be the subject of our next entry.
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