We are now truly entering an era of Irish history commonly identified with the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. The events we will be discussing were the final steps on the road to those conflicts, and while it will still be a while before we cover them in detail – the larger conflagration on the continent is going to be taking up a good deal of my attention before then – there are several notable events between the years of 1910 and 1914 that bear closer examination.
The Irish Parliamentary Party, after the fall of Parnell and for several years afterward, was a fractured thing, but it was gradually able to clobber itself back together, thanks largely to the unifying issue of opposition to the Boer War. In 1900 leadership of the re-united party had passed to Waterford MP John Redmond, a “Parnellite” who found himself in the position largely as a compromise choice between different factions. The IPP was strengthened further by the activities of the “Ancient Order Of Hibernians”, a Catholic society on a par with the Orange Order, that advocated a strongly sectarian kind of Irish nationalism, and violently opposed “Orangism” and other opposing political factions through Ireland (it too would split between American and Irish factions).
That kind of factionalism was still an issue – an offshoot from the IPP, the largely Cork based “All-For-Ireland League” under William O’Brien, would hold many Parliamentary seats and oppose the IPP on its Home Rule strategy – but the IPP was able to show a remarkably united front in the face of immense political opportunities that fell their way.
In 1906, the Liberals under Henry Campbell-Bannerman swept to power in Westminster following a bout of Conservative infighting and unpopularity. The IPP took 82 seats in the same vote, but with an overwhelming majority the Liberals had no need to kowtow to the idea of Home Rule as previous leaders had to. The Liberals’ radical social changes and efforts to increase taxation on the rich brought considerable political turmoil, and two elections in 1910 were required, first to get support for a budget and then for support to reduce the power of the largely Conservative House of Lords. On these occasions things worked out much to the benefit of the IPP, as the Liberals, now under H.H Asquith, lacked a majority of their own and were forced to look west for support to form a government. The price of that was nothing less than Home Rule. The passing of the Parliament Act in 1911, that meant that the House of Lords could only delay, and not reject, bills from the Commons, essentially made the passing of Home Rule a legislative inevitability.
This changed reality – Home Rule moving from a shot in the dark to political certainty – was the tinder that started the revolutionary fire in Ireland, though it would take numerous other steps for things to blaze out of control. The passing of the Home Rule Bill in April 1912 – rejected by the Lords, but thus only delayed until 1914 – led to a harsh and unrelenting opposition from those of a Protestant Unionist persuasion, centred largely in the north-eastern part of the country.
Men like Lord Edward Carson, a Unionist MP andf barrister, and the previously discussed James Craig, were horrified at the prospect of “Rome Rule”, rejecting even the limited self-government powers that Home Rule involved, convinced that a clear union between Britain and Ireland made the best social, political and economic sense. If they could not stop Home Rule, they favoured a partition of the country so that the north could remain a part of the Union, though there was inevitable division over to what extent such a partition should be made. Thousands of fellow Protestants felt much the same, and long before the Third Home Rule Bill was first introduced, Carson and others were addressing gigantic crowds in the north of Ireland, opposing the political elements of Irish nationalism and using increasingly violent rhetoric.
The combination of Home Rule’s future legislative triumph and Unionist opposition reintroduced the idea of volunteer militias to Ireland, starting with Protestant Unionists, who began organising such entities in early 1912, many of the first ones based around the lodges of the Orange Order. The rapid growth of such organisations is impressive: by April, Unionist leaders were able to oversee parades of nearly 100’000 men, though the amount of arms they had were extremely limited. These militia would meet, be instructed in rudimentary drill and generally try and look as impressive as possible, something they would accomplish through sheer numbers if nothing else. While events like 1798 and 1641 were so long before that they were as almost legend at that stage, they still gave Protestant Unionists enough motivation to fear what would inevitably have been a Catholic Nationalist dominated government in Dublin.
By September, Carson, Craig and others unveiled a formal declaration, the “Ulster Covenant” for those opposed to Home Rule to sign, which was unequivocal in its ideals of resisting Home Rule by any means necessary. The document describes Home Rule as “destructive”, “perilous” and a “conspiracy” that the undersigned would use “all means” to destroy. Nearly 500’000 men and women would sign it or similar documents. This was no flash in the pan in terms of political anger: this was a deadly serious threat to the established political, social and military order. A few months after the mass signing, the Ulster Volunteer Force, more commonly known as just the Ulster Volunteers, was formed to regularise the militias that had sprung up throughout the previous year.
The Ulster Volunteers would number over 100’000, consisting of men who had signed the Covenant between the ages of 17 and 65. Led by ex-members of the British Army, and with open support from the Conservative Party, the Ulster Volunteers flourished between its founding in January 1913 and the outbreak of World War One over a year and a half later.
It would take nearly a year for Irish nationalists to respond, but respond they did. An offshoot of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Hibernian Rifles, already existed as a pro-Irish nationalism militia, but they were small in number and regarded by many as an overly militant right-wing organisation. After the Home Rule Bill was passed by the Commons, then rejected by the Lords, a second and last time in 1913, men of widely varying revolutionary sentiment realised that something had to be done to oppose the Unionists. Chief among them was Bulmer Hobson of the IRB, who thought that the actions of the Ulster Volunteers was the perfect opportunity to expand IRB operations and establish the kind of open military force that had been impossible for decades. Using UCD Professor Eoin MacNeill, a nationalist, but in no way similar to Hobson in much of his ideology, as a centre-piece, Hobson and the IRB went about organising their own militia. A famous MacNeill article in a Gaelic League publication, “The North Began”, is commonly seen as the first major step, but it is likely that the true genesis of the Irish Volunteers was found in Tom Clarke’s tobacconist shop as much as anywhere else.
The ”Irish Volunteers” were officially launched on the 25th November 1913, at an event with men like Padraig Pearse speaking at the Rotunda. 7’000 attended the meeting, and, in the days and months that followed, Volunteer membership in Dublin and beyond grew quickly. Its initial proclamations were far more conciliatory than those of the Ulster Volunteers, claiming to be open to all creeds and religions, and dedicating the Irish Volunteers to be a defensive force only, one that would only come to blows if given no choice.
Right from the start, the IRB was embedded within the Irish Volunteers, and would, as they had with other organisations, use their influence to increase recruitment to their own brotherhood and to nudge Volunteer direction in the way that best suited them. The confluence of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers, the Home Rule defending Irish Volunteers and the IRB still angling for a independent Irish republic would dominate Irish political and military affairs for the next few years.
And there was another force at play too, but they deserve their own entry in this series. Blood was being shed in Dublin the same year that the Irish Volunteers were founded, but it was workers’ rights and the cause of labour that was at the heart of it, not nationalist politics. And a new army would rise from that conflict.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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