Coming out of the wave of volunteering in 1912 and 1913, and then the unrest of the Lockout, 1914 was earmarked as a momentous year in Irish history. Under the new rules governing what the House of Lords could and couldn’t do, 1914 was the year Home Rule was going to be enacted, and potentially the year that the Ulster and Irish Volunteers would come to blows over the same. A series of incidents, military, criminal and political, conspired to inflame the situation in the first half of that year, as Home Rule became the prime issue of the day, remaining so until late June.
In March, even while the British government was mooting the possibility of the Ulster counties individually voting on whether to accept Home Rule or not – the first steps towards an established partition policy – things spiralled towards crisis due to the so-called “Curragh Incident”, or more accurately, the “Curragh Mutiny”, a watershed moment in the history of the British Army in Ireland, when the sensibilities of military leadership provided an obvious sign of where things were headed.
The head of the British Army at the time, General Sir John French, had already expressed concern about the possibility of the Armed Forces in Ireland fragmenting over the implementation of Home Rule. Many of the officer corps had open Unionist sympathies, being largely Protestant themselves, and distrusted the idea of a Home Rule policy that would overly-favour Catholic Nationalists. It was an open secret that high-ranking members of the military were enjoying friendly relations with men like Edward Carson and Bonar Law, the anti-Home Rule head of the opposition Conservatives. There was a serious possibility, it was thought, that the British Army’s leadership and larger officer corps could not be depended upon to enforce Home Rule on Ulster if called on to do so.
The Commander-In-Chief in Ireland at the time was Arthur Paget, a 63-year-old General with experience in west African and Boer campaigns. Late in 1913, Paget met with French and others to discuss contingencies in Ireland, in the event that the Ulster Volunteers openly went on the warpath. It was claimed that there was intelligence indicating the UVF was prepared to seize armouries by force in the not-too-distant future, and French wanted to forestall this (in reality, the UVF discounted such an idea, as they knew it would damage their cause in terms of public sympathy and political support).
The plan mainly consisted of using British forces already in Ireland to guard strategic points like armouries and key government buildings while awaiting reinforcements from Britain, with the Army prepared to use deadly force if required. In March 1914, Paget was ordered to move troops to guard these areas, in the expectation that the UVF was about to strike, but only verbally: part of the mess that was about to transpire was as much to do with the lack of formal instructions as anything else.
On the 20th of March Paget met with his main subordinates in Ireland, exacerbating a delicate situation by essentially offering a choice to senior officers, that men with familial connections to the north would be allowed to sit out the coming campaigns, but that others who refused to serve would be dismissed. He ordered these men to consult with the officers of their units. Some have wondered if the entire incident would have been avoided had Paget simply ordered his men to follow the plan, but that is all so much hindsight. Worse than this ultimatum perhaps was the vagueness of Paget’s vision for what was to take place in Ulster, with subordinate officers unclear whether they would just be trying to “overawe” the UVF, or if “active operations” would entail direct violent contact.
Within a day, over 60 officers, mainly in the 5th Lancers, had offered to resign their commissions rather than march north. Over a 100 more nationwide would join them in the following days. The incident was a public-relations disaster for both the military and the government, who rapidly tried to come up with a counter-response. The muddle of the verbal orders and military meetings led to many blaming Paget’s offer for the trouble, giving officers the impression that it was perfectly acceptable for them to walk away from their commands in a time of potential crisis. One key individual, General Hubert Gough of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, based in the Curragh Camp, Kildare, confirmed in a meeting at the War Office that he would have obeyed a direct order to move out into Ulster, but that Paget had indicated an alternate course.
The movement into Ulster was largely a non-event, as Asquith’s government dictated a message to the army claiming the entire affair to be an “honest misunderstanding”, hoping to pass the incident off as a harmless trifle, but this was then botched when the Secretary for War, J.E.B. Seeley, added a few lines declaring that Home Rule would not be enforced on Ulster through the use of the Army, possibly under pressure from others. Asquith’s government was again humiliated, and its ability to dictate orders and policy on the Army called into serious question. The political fallout resulted in French, Seeley and others resigning; Paget remained in his position but found his career stalled, as he was looked over for command in World War One. In contrast, French would be picked to command the British Expeditionary Force in France within half a year.
It is to be noted of course, that the Curragh Mutiny was entirely an officer’s affair: the opinions of enlisted men were not worth much, if any, consideration to the military and political leaders involved, they were simply expected to follow whatever orders they were given regardless of personal political opinions.
The entire affair contributed to Unionist confidence that the authorities were practically on their side, and that they could continue to grow, expand and arm themselves without having to worry too much about the possibility of interference. On the other hand, Irish nationalists grew ever more concerned about the practical enforcement of Home Rule in the face of likely non-cooperation from the arms of government, and, in some cases at least, this contributed to a growing sentiment that the Irish Volunteers were on their own when it came to protecting Home Rule. The government was already angling heavily for a negotiated settlement that would leave part or all of the north out of Home Rule’s jurisdiction, and now it was clear that the Liberals would not be willing or capable of enforcing Home Rule anyway, while the Conservatives, if in power, would probably scupper the entire deal. For the radical elements, like those within the IRB, it was ample fodder to stoke resentment and point people towards the idea of a more revolutionary sentiment.
For the UVF, the Curragh Incident was a serious boost. But if they were going to do anything beyond march and bluster, then they would need arms. The British government had taken legislative steps to prevent this, but the leaders of both sets of Volunteers would not be deterred.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.